Director Tim Robbin’s take on the book Dead Man Walking is not a movie that challenges our moral notions of what is right and wrong in vengeance and the death penalty in an unexpected fashion. The movie also brings the viewer to question the role that our central convictions, most prominently in this film is one of Christianity, when it comes to using the death penalty.
Matthew Poncelet at first appears as a smooth talking (though questionably innocent) man who has been sentenced to death for an action which he claims to have no complicity in. There is an interesting parallel in the development of the cross-cut flashbacks of the crime with the introduction of more information about Poncelet and his past. As Sister Prejean is entering the jail for the first time, the first images of the crime being committed, a gun being pointed down in a dark shot at an ambiguous target, mirrors her perception of Poncelet’s innocence. Immediately after the next cut to the murder scene where we see the dirt covered limbs of the raped girl, Poncelet pulls out a picture of his daughter to show Sister Prejean, which evokes dual sentiments of sympathy and disbelief in the viewer.
Despite this development of the notion of guilt as is presented to the viewer in these flashbacks, it is difficult not to have some sympathy for his position. His father being a sharecropper, he tells us “there ain’t nobody with money on death row,” and his partner, Vitello, managed to get out of the ultimate sentence with a good lawyer, whether or not ultimately life in prison is worse than death. I am not saying he is a victim of circumstance, absolved from guilt, in any way, but he is a more complex character than he appears to almost all the characters save Sister Lejean. Consider the following screenshot, displaying tattoos of his daughter’s name, a spider, the holy bible, and other contrasting images.
Yet, until he repents, he refuses to accept responsibility for his actions, such as by being “loaded on downs, acid, and booze” when they murdered the young couple. Later he claims that he just blindly followed Vitello as an individual looking for approbation in the eyes of his friend. He claims politics played a role in it as the governor sought to kill him to get reelected. He publicly admits being a part of the Aryan brotherhood and saying he will bomb government buildings, but refuses to admit he is a murderer until his head rests on a guillotine. He is indeed a monster as we come to realize. “It’s easy to kill a monster, but hard to kill a human being,” according to Poncelet’s defense attorney, and only as the film develops do we see the spirit of a man in the shell of a monster. But Paraphrased from then the words of Oh-Dae Su from Oldboy, “Even though [Poncelet is] no worse than a beast, [doesn’t he] have a right to live?”
That aside, the externalities of the consequences of both the crime and the lust for vengeance, by the families of the murdered individuals, ends up creating a worse world for all parties involved. Poncelet’s mother is anathemized by the community because of an Inside Crime report, and her son has to endure constant bullying such as having a dead animal put in his locker. Do these actions which result from the fallout of the murder, and publicity therefrom resulting, not lead to more and more hatred and emotional struggles? Could these not lead innocent individuals, such as Matthew’s brother, down the sort of abject moral path his brother was already on? The feedback effects of seeking vengeance effect all involved, and many more, explaining further would be extraneous. Once it is determined that Poncelet is to be murdered, the father of the murdered girl loses his wife and his current stability in life—with his daughter avenged, what does he have to live for? From the perspective of a realist, Poncelet’s execution led to nothing but more hurt and pain for everyone else. So he relinquished his right to life by his vile actions, wouldn’t killing him amplify the pain for all?
We, as humans seeking irrational vengeance, try to reduce our complicity in the death of someone using the death penalty, whether it is justified or not, through following the precedencies of the legal system or finding more humane ways of killing an individual. With the lethal injection, those individuals who have been hurt or wronged by the punished person are able to watch his death and feel morally divorced from the idea that they are depriving another of the one thing they are sure to hold on to. It is interesting to contrast this final somber scene of Poncelet’s execution with the public spectacles that were executions by guillotine during the French revolution. We have to ask ourselves the question whether we have a categorical imperative to preserve human life or to punish people based on a concept of desert. I believe that the director here answers the question by claiming that those who hold on to the concept of desert as a moral justification will lead to more harm than good—appealing to the notion of what a “good” Christian would do, as so many characters do, can be inverted from a turn-the other-cheek to an eye-for-an-eye mentality. To what moral code should we ascribe when the concepts of desert turn on us, or when our adherence to idealism, be it through law or a respect for life for all human beings, do the same? By evoking within the viewer a little sympathy for the devil, the director poses these deep questions to us, and I would like to hear what you readers have to think of it.