Saturday, December 30, 2006

the relevance of "Dead Man Walking"

Most American conservatives revile the actor Tim Robbins and his life partner, Susan Sarandon, for their liberal political views. Robbins and Sarandon have been vehemently anti-war and anti-Bush. They, along with actor Sean Penn, who has called for Bush's impeachment, probably represent everything the conservative establishment hates about "limousine liberals."

But these three people came together to make the remarkable 1995 film "Dead Man Walking," which was based on the diary of Sister Helen Prejean, a nun who was the spiritual advisor for a death row prisoner, Elmo Patrick Sonnier. In the movie, the prisoner is played by Sean Penn and is renamed Matthew Poncelet. Sarandon plays Sister Helen, and the film is directed by Tim Robbins. The real-life Sister Helen advocates the abolition of the death penalty, and the movie "Dead Man Walking" seems, for most of its length, to agree with her convictions.

But as the execution of the prisoner occurs (lethal injection in the movie; electric chair in real life), director Robbins does something interesting: he intercuts the scenes of Poncelet's dying moments with glimpses of the rape and murder Poncelet had committed, forcefully reminding the viewer of what the man had done. I have no idea what Robbins's purpose was in doing such a thing; it seems to undercut Sister Helen's message. Can this be right?

Perhaps Robbins wants us to see how far Poncelet has come, spiritually speaking: Penn's character's final utterance on the execution table is one of love, which is a stark contrast to the hatefulness we witness at the beginning of the story. It could also be that Robbins wishes to remind us of the emotional complexity that accompanies all such cases of violence and loss: while Poncelet never becomes a sympathetic character, he nevertheless seems a step closer to redemption, thanks in part to the ministrations of Sister Helen. Forgiveness of this man seems at least conceivable.

But Robbins's intercutting of past and present can also be read as a cold reminder that a monster is, thankfully, being taken out of circulation. We should harbor no warm feelings for such filth, is what Robbins seems to be saying. Remember what he did.

As we look on the death of Saddam Hussein, whose body is already several hours' cold as I write this, I find the message of "Dead Man Walking"-- remember-- rather apt. Weep not for Saddam. And if his death will lead to further violence and to his elevation as a martyr, keep in mind that most violence is a choice, not a disease or compulsion. The acts of the violent will be traceable to free agency, not to Saddam's death.

My best wishes now go to the little creatures that will feast on Saddam's body over the coming years. Saddam was well-fed until the end; his corpse is an impressive offering to the cthonian divinities. Long may the little creatures dine.


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