If crime is America's Number 1 problem, how come serious American movies about crime are so rare? Don't talk to me about "Seven" or "Casino" or "Heat," either. Those jive flicks are just excuses for fabulous clothes and nifty camerawork. Great filmmaking but zero truth.
On the other hand, take Sean Penn's "The Crossing Guard" and Tim Robbins' new "Dead Man Walking," two sober movies about violence and revenge. If anything, "Dead Man Walking" is a little too solemn and honest in its true story of a do-gooder Louisiana nun who befriended a white trash Death Row inmate awaiting execution for his part in the murders of a teenage couple. This is one tough, unsentimental film, with Susan Sarandon as the nun and Sean Penn as the convict diving deeply into their unglamorous characters. The story tosses in a few diversions: Penn claims he didn't get a fair trial, and Sarandon helps him obtain a last-minute hearing requesting a new trial. Meanwhile, the convicted murderer sticks by his story that his drinking buddy committed the murders while he watched in horror, and he insists a lie detector test will back him up.
These twists are really red herrings, meant to inject tension and uncertainty into the straight-line chronology. Tim Robbin's real aim is to provoke debate about capital punishment, and to that end he gives equal voice to every side of the debate. We've got angry, vengeful parents that see Penn as an inhuman monster, and sensitive, grief-wracked parents who still hope his death will provide some closure and relief.
Ultimately, "Dead Man Walking" blends a thoughtful discussion about justice with a sensitive sketch of two struggling people who have a gift for getting people upset. The film works better as as fodder for debate than as drama; it's closer to "My Dinner With Andre" than "Silence of the Lambs." But I recommend "Dead Man Walking" anyway, in part because you won't see a more important movie for months. I also think it's a good idea to support the work of Hollywood's most socially conscious filmmakers, Sarandon, Robbins and Penn, especially when their work gleams with as much integrity as "Dead Man Walking."
Copyright 1996 Michael Fox
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