The Death Penalty

Tim Robbins’, Dead Man Walking, displays the relationship between a nun and a convicted killer on death row. As their relationship blossoms and she begins to empathize with the killer, we find ourselves doing the same. However, Robbins also provides us with the perspectives of the victim’s families, which causes us to question our own views of the matter.  We begin to see that it is easy speculate the type of justice that should be given when we do not know both sides of the story. There are victims on each side of every crime. Robbins’ chronological arrangement of this film purposefully causes us to question or change our views towards the death penalty as a means of justice.

In the beginning of the film, we are introduced to perpetrator, Matthew Poncelet. When he first speaks with Sister Helen Prejean, he makes it very clear that while he did rape the victim, Helen, he never killed anybody. Here, there are only two ways to view the situation; he is innocent, and his death sentence is unjust, or he is lying, guilty, and his audacity for this statement, only solidifies his death sentence. However, the way Robbins’ portrays Poncelet, we are led to believe that even though he has committed this heinous crime and does not feel too much guilt towards the matter, he probably did not commit the crimes that he is sentenced to death for. Thus, as we watch Sister Helen Prejean try to get his case acquitted, we find ourselves rooting for the acquitted so that true justice will be served in the case of Matthew Poncelet. However, up until this point, we only have one side of the story: Poncelet’s.

As the film progresses, we are introduced to the victims’ families. We watch as they chastise Sister Helen Prejean for representing a monster and convicted murderer. As we hear how Poncelet robbed their children of their future, and robbed their parents of their joy, we begin to sympathize with them as well. In structuring the film in this way, Robbins causes us to become torn between whether or not the death penalty truly is the only satisfying means of justice. Had he introduced the victims before the criminal, we probably would have probably believed that regardless of what he said, he was a monster, deserving death. However, with this arrangement, the audience can’t be sure what to believe because we got to establish a secondary relationship with the killer that cannot be so easily overturned.

Soon, we are introduced to Poncelet’s family. We finally get to see the effects this trial have had on his family. His brothers are being bullied at school and his mother is getting harassed by reporters while she questions where she went wrong during her parenting. We, as the audience, can see that even though they know Poncelet is guilty of the crime, they still love him and don’t want to see his life taken by the government. When you are one sided towards justice, it is often times hard to think of the people who are related to the “monster” that you are ridding the world of. Many times, we think we are doing the world a service by getting rid of who we think won’t be missed; we don’t consider what their family and friends are going through. Maybe if we did this, we would reconsider the death penalty as a means of justice; or then again we wouldn’t.

In the final scenes, we see everyone’s perspectives brought together as Poncelet awaits his death. His family, while solemn, is filled with grief. The victims’ families, while solemn, are satisfied. Sister Helen Prejean overwhelmed with anguish while Poncelet is nervous. Up until this point, we have been given different stories but have yet to see the truth. Robbins’ specifically places the truth of what happened that faithful night at the end of the movie. Once again, this toys with the viewer’s emotions as to whether or not Poncelet had this coming or regardless of his crimes, his death sentence should have been overturned. Had Robbins’ placed  this scene at the beginning, we as viewers, would never have had a chance to make an unbiased opinion towards the death penalty. Thus, Robbins’ strategically arranged his films in this chronological manner to challenge our views and hopefully change them.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “The Death Penalty

  1. ald3561

    I think the way Robbins structures the film actually leads me as the viewer to only sympathize with the families. In the flashes of the night of the murder shown at the beginning of the film it was evident to me that Poncelet did commit the murder and rape and he is just lying in order to get Helen to talk with him during his final days. As the viewer, I agree that Robbins left room for possibly siding with Poncelet but these feelings are easily removed after scenes with the families. After hearing their side of the story, I think it is nearly impossible to sympathize with Poncelet. Yes, being sentenced to death is surely terrifying but he got exactly what he deserved. The execution scene that shows the night of the murders leaves no room for empathy towards their terrible man because he brutally raped a teenage girl and killed a teenage boy. At that point in the film, as the viewer it is gut wrenching to watch that scene and I was satisfied with the execution.

  2. lbhayes

    This movie somewhat plays with the viewers of the film and puts almost the viewers in an awkward place. It becomes a struggle to decide who to support or how to feel while watching this film. I think you bring up so many great points about how leaving the actual truth until the end is playing with the viewers emotions. That is such an interesting tactic of the film maker and really gives the movie such a loop. I personally found it so hard to watch all of the different people, who have different beliefs on the matter in the same place. I do believe that he did something so awful and justice needed to be served. I certainly felt challenged and confused at the end after being sent on such a different trail for so much of the movie, so I totally agree with all of your points and the effects of this aspect of the film.

  3. kyliewatt

    I also like the way that this film is structured. It forces the viewer to really analyze and think about their views on the death penalty and the justice system. With the introduction of both the killer’s and victim’s families, we are forced to analyze the effects that this situation has on both of them instead of always worrying about the victim’s family. Of course we always sympathize with the victim’s family because they are almost always innocent, but the killer’s family is also suffering. It is important to take these situations and look at the effects it has on society and I think that this film puts viewers in that unique and difficult position.

  4. emilydarst

    While I agree with many of the points you have brought up, I think there may also be one more way to view Poncelet that you did not mention (other than being either innocent, or lying, and being guilty of raping and killing the victims), and this could be to consider Matthew Poncelet as a different person from the man who committed the aforementioned crime. I know might seem like a bit of a stretch, but I think it is obvious that Poncelet has changed during his time in prison and especially during his time with Sister Helen, and that perhaps he has changed so much that he can now be qualified as a different person entirely, one who would never commit such horrific actions.
    If the audience considers the Matthew Poncelet appearing in real time in the film to be a protagonist portrayed as a good person, then the antagonist can be cast as Poncelet’s former self, the evil person who could find it in himself to partake in the raping and killing of two innocent people. This state of mind could be too ridiculous for an audience member to consider while watching “Dead Man Walking”, but personally, I think that it is a very interesting way to view Poncelet and the nature of humanity.

  5. dscwood

    I agree with the above comment that Poncelet should be viewed as possibly a different person than the poncelet that committed the crime He definetly changed in his time in prison. This may be a commentary on the death penalty. It is evident that the director is commenting on the inhumanity of the death penalty in this film especially when you hear Poncelets last words. This may be a further comment that rehabilitation through imprisonment is better than killing someone, despite what they may have done to get the imprisonment.

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