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.