“Pulling a Robbery”: Gary Gray’s Use of the Execution Scene Seen in Dead Man Walking

At this time in the U.S., the validity and true fairness of our justice system has become a very controversial topic. For example, with innovative strides made in areas such as DNA testing, people have begun to fight against the death penalty for some death row inmates who may actually be innocent if evidence were tested with this new method.  Another common issue with the justice system is the problem of actually putting those deserving of punishment away instead of those who have not been proven guilty without a reasonable doubt. As the American people have begun to question the judicial system frequently over the years, many directors have made these issues of justice central themes to their own movies. In Tim Robbin’s Dead Man Walking and Gary Gray’s Law-Abiding Citizen, both directors use similar scene set ups and shots for death row inmates in the midst of their executions in order to convey two differing themes. In these two films, directors Tim Robbins and Gary Gray use scenes of death row inmates to convey their themes regarding the controversial aspects of the American justice system.

In Dead Man Walking, Tim Robbins uses this final execution scene to highlight the controversial issues of the Death Penalty for inmates who arguably deserve a second chance or a punishment less harsh. The leading character Matthew Poncelet is a convict rightfully charged with the sexual assault of a teenage girl as well as the murder of her teenage boyfriend. Poncelet consistently denies these charges, claiming he did not kill or rape anyone, until the day of his execution when he emotionally comes to terms with his sin while talking to Sister Helen. As his time to live winds down and he begins to be prepared for execution, the viewer gets a view of Poncelet from Sister Helen’s point of view.

Time Stamp: 2:10

This view of Poncelet delivers an empathetic perception of this convict which the viewer, similar to Sister Helen, has watched grow and change as a person throughout the movie. Poncelet’s face in the scene gives off a feeling of solemn regret and deep sorrow towards the actions he has played a part in to receive such punishment. More importantly, the viewer gets a deep look at the true guilt Poncelet feels for the mistakes he has previously made. This push for empathy from the viewer helps to question the use of the death penalty as punishment for inmates. The movie serves to show that people can change, and Matthew Poncelet’s situation forces the viewer to decide whether a “changed” convict should still receive the severe punishment of death by lethal injection.

In Law-Abiding Citizen, Gary Gray’s scene regarding a man’s execution lightly plays with the topic of wrongly accused persons within the judicial system. In this execution the scene is displayed almost identical to that of Tim Robbin’s ending scene in Dead Man Walking, with the point of view coming from that of the main character, Nick Rice. The difference in this scene is that empathetic feelings toward the man facing execution are relatively nonexistent; the character’s only visible involvement within the story is a brief apprehension while taking part in the robbery and murder of the Shelton family ten years before the execution. His story bares some similar comparisons to Matthew Poncelet’s in Tim Robbin’s film by being part of a crime he did not necessarily want to be involved with. Aside from their stories, this man on the execution table also strikingly resembles the scene in Dead Man Walking.

Time Stamp: 15:24

The man’s face carries the same sorrowful and regretful expression as Poncelet’s, but in this case both the viewer and Nick Rice do not know about the innocence or potential changed emotions of this man. While the man actually did not participate in the murders of the Shelton family, he still finds himself punished by death with no one sympathizing for him. Gary Gray plays with the topic of the death penalty and judicial system by showing members of this justice system’s ability to completely disregard the cruelty of killing a man for questionable charges. The lawyer, Nick Rice, treats this execution as another common day on the job rather than actually looking at the real “rights” and “wrongs” of this present situation, a theme that becomes a bigger focal point as the movie progresses. In the end, Gary Gray’s clever use of Tim Robbin’s death row inmate scene helps to illuminate the opposite, unsympathetic side of the Death Penalty controversy.




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10 responses to ““Pulling a Robbery”: Gary Gray’s Use of the Execution Scene Seen in Dead Man Walking

  1. towarnic

    I also noticed the similarities between Matthew Poncelet’s execution and the lethal injection of Ames in Law Abiding Citizen. In the two images used above, I think it is interesting that the lighting is significantly brighter during Poncelet’s execution compared to lighting during Ames’ execution. Since Poncelet appeared to have taken responsibility for his actions, the lighting may represent a type of “awakening” or “rebirth.” However, the dark and gloomy lighting during Ames’ execution may have foreshadowed the horrible pain he was about to endure. I find it interesting that you mentioned their executions being viewed from either Nick or Sr. Helen’s point of view. These images may represent what Sr. Helen and Nick saw before the executions, but I’m unsure if they could necessarily be considered point of view shots.

  2. emroberts19

    I like that you drew a parallel between the two films – even though the execution is only a small part in Law-Abiding Citizen, it is worth comparing to the use of the execution scene in Dead Man Walking. I think that the effect in Law-Abiding Citizen is to just draw attention to the corruption present in the justice system, which sets up the conflict later in the film; however, in Dead Man Walking it is obviously much more of an emotional moment that leads the audience to empathize with Poncelet.

  3. kyliewatt

    I like how you saw the parallels between the two films and especially in the two execution scenes. The topic of the success of the judicial system is becoming more and mroe popular and these two films show how it is still an increasing issue over the decade. Since the films are more than 10 years apart from each other, are there any differences in the issues about the justice system that are raised in one and not the other? It would be interesting to compare these two films further and determine if the issue has evolved or is the same.

  4. tjholt7790

    The only flaw in your argument that I would point is that many scenes showing people lethally injected appear the same, simply because shooting a remorseful victim from straight-on is seems to be a popular choice for directors. I still think your connection is valid, however, because it denotes the visual similarity in scenes but the emotional differences within the observing characters. I did not originally point this out, and I think that you explain well how such similar scenes can reveal different judgments of the death penalty.

  5. emilydarst

    I also found it interesting that Gray and Robbins chose to highlight different views of the death penalty, by playing with the sympathy of the audience. Throughout the course of “Dead Man Walking”, the audience gets to know Poncelet as a person, sees that he is not the entirely evil man that he is perceived to be by the Percys and the Delacroixs, but instead views him as a sympathetic character. His death at the end of the film shows a regretful and sorrowful man, asking forgiveness of those he had harmed. Ames’ death in “Law Abiding Citizen” is not as emotional for the audience, because the audience does not know this character, nor do they know that he feels any remorse for his actions. The audience mostly sees the death of Ames as justice for his crime, that is, until his injection is compromised by Clyde Shelton, and he ends up dying in a very inhumane way.

    • terrellhicks

      While both are focusing on the death penalty as a form of punishment, it is still immoral and inhumane for the justice system to take the life of another person. It is easier to explain in “Dead Man Walking” because Matthew’s emotions are shown throughout the film and the audience is able to connect with him unlike Ames in “Law Abiding Citizen”. Watching a human die is a painful thought, but an even worse reality. Matthew can be seen as more human than Ames and even the people that wanted him to die had a hard time watching him die by lethal injection. This raises the question of “why do we enforce the death penalty if it’s so difficult to watch and endure on both ends”? I think a life-sentence is the better answer so that society is not guilty for physically taking the lives of others.

  6. I feel that Gray & Robbins films truly highlight the importance of having the audience get a chance to know the persons being convicted. Robbins embraced this technique by letting us get to know Poncelet so that we could empathize with his character. Because Gray did not allow us to empathize with Ames, we are not able to form a valid opinion of whether we think he is innocent or guilty. We were able to form an opinion in Poncelet’s case. It is however ironic that Robbins allowed us to empathize with a guilty man, while Gray did not allow us to make a connection with a man that was indeed innocent of the crimes he was charged for.

  7. You’re right to point out the empathy Robbins seeks to bring out of his audience. Poncelet certainly does change during his time on death row, but at this point it is far too late. Robbins deliberately hides Poncelet’s guilt until the very end so that the viewer empathizes with this man’s plight. Even when we do find out for sure that he’s guilty, there are still mixed emotions among the audience concerning this man’s execution.

  8. srayena

    The connection between Dead Man Walking and Law Abiding Citizen becomes uncanny upon reading your post which highlights the cinematographic and narrative aspects of the execution scenes of Poncelet and Ames. In a way it is through viewing both of these films that one can get a truer sense of what the death penalty entails. Through Dead Man Walking, the audience is able to sympathize with the recipient of the lethal injection because of how Robbins forces the viewer into Sister Helen’s role of getting to know Poncelet the person. As the film comes to an end, we feel the pain of Poncelet’s death as an individual who might have found redemption because of the obvious remorse that he exhibits and because we have been able to see Poncelet through the various lenses of Sister Helen, his mother, brother, the media, etc.
    In Law Abiding Citizen, Gray hints that the death penalty may not be just prior to Ames’ execution, while the brutality of the execution itself causes the audience to feel empathy merely because of shared humanity and regardless of ones thoughts about the death penalty. I found it interesting that the tampered execution of Ames as Gray presents it in Law Abiding Citizen, might actually more realistically depict the physical pain that one endures when being put to death (*according to some capitol punishment protestors who argue that the cocktail of chemicals is not pain free whatsoever).

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