If there's a less popular cause in the land of three-strikes-and-you're-out justice than abolition of the death penalty, I don't know what it is. Maybe a salary increase for Deion Sanders. Or amnesty for Saddam Hussein. The current occupant of the White House, cops sipping coffee down at the station house and members of your local garden club all seem to agree these days: It's high time to kill the bastards.

Give emergent director Tim Robbins credit, then, for renewing the old debate in his harrowing brink-of-execution melodrama Dead Man Walking. But don't expect clear-cut answers or much politicized special pleading. Like, say, Patton, which has long been interpreted by some as an anthem to a ferocious warrior-hero and by others as a vivid antiwar statement, Robbins's film is passionate but cunningly open-ended. It gives voice to grieving families traumatized by a gruesome double murder, and it provides a full, frightening portrait of a convicted killer who, as the hour draws near, embodies some of the by-now-familiar arguments against capital punishment.

The dangers of this approach are pretty clear. Robbins ran the risk of reducing Dead Man to a kind of tepid death-penalty survey course--on one hand, blah blah blah; on the other hand, bleep bleep bleep. Instead, the man who did a little hard time himself in The Shawshank Redemption manages to arouse powerful emotions on both sides of the issue, then lets the audience draw its own conclusions. This comes on the strength of thoughtful writing and a pair of astonishing performances by Sean Penn, as the surly murderer, and Susan Sarandon, as a nun roped into becoming his "spiritual advisor" as appeals run out and the Louisiana authorities load up their lethal syringe.

I haven't read the memoir by Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., upon which Robbins based his screenplay, but the movie's producers hasten to point out that the book has been loosely adapted. Apparently, that's allowed Robbins to reinvent Sarandon's Sister Helen as a neutral (and occasionally naive) American citizen--Everynun standing in for Everyone, or at least for most of us--caught between opposing forces in the hardest dilemma of her life. A social worker and teacher at a housing project in a tough New Orleans neighborhood, she suddenly finds her liberalism tested by the remorselessness of a death-row con man; at the same time, she holds her spiritual duties sacred and comes to understand the strange creature whose final days have been entrusted to her.

Director Robbins and Sarandon are longtime roommates, of course, and their empathy is unmistakable: The actress's feel for her character and the flow of the film seems no less than telepathic.

Penn is a more startling revelation. Wearing a stingy jailhouse goatee and mustache, he glares out from under a huge blue-black pompadour that at once suggests a strutting rooster and every hair-trigger hillbilly who ever hot-wired a Ford pickup. Beyond the look, Hollywood's most notorious bad boy also smashes the remaining barriers in his troubled acting career. Clearly, he was born to play the role of killer Matthew Poncelet. Despite the greasy pane of bulletproof glass between them, this unnerving force of nature assaults the woman he has called to his aid with a withering gaze and a relentless line of racist venom--all the while insisting on his innocence. We suspect otherwise, while Robbins intrigues us all movie long with an ever-darker series of flashbacks that reveal more and more about the crime at hand--the lover's-lane rape and double murder of two teenagers.

Lesser films--Sally Field's maternal-revenge drama, Eye for an Eye, for instance--package their killers as sheer monsters, but Robbins and Penn pull off a kind of miracle in Dead Man Walking. Matthew Poncelet is never sympathetic, but he is always human: In time, Penn takes us all the way down into the bleak dungeon of a man's soul.

"I ain't no victim," he spits, full of penitentiary bravado. But as the clock ticks and the tension mounts in the dirty yellow light of an isolation cell, the film compels us to think about victims of all sorts and all degrees--those murdered, their families, and the shamed, defeated killer. The agonized father of the slain boy (Raymond J. Barry) and parents of the dead girl (R. Lee Ermey and Celia Weston) burn for justice and yearn for peace, and they speak their minds to the nun when they discover her counselor's role. But the movie never gives them short shrift or simply poses them for pictures. Slowly, we come to feel what they feel, like a plague under the skin.

If Sarandon is spellbinding, Penn dominates the film, and he could win an Oscar for it. But even the minor characters are perfectly realized--Robert Prosky's disheveled defense lawyer, doggedly working the phones; Lois Smith as the nun's well-heeled mother, who can't quite believe what her daughter is telling her at the dinner table; Scott Wilson as a disapproving prison chaplain who tries to pull rank on Sister Helen when she materializes behind his walls. This is a distant echo, of course: Thirty years ago Wilson played the tall killer in the movie version of In Cold Blood.

If anything, the multitalented Robbins makes as important a breakthrough here as Penn. His directorial debut was the clever political satire Bob Roberts, but this is much stronger stuff--a meditation on life, death and justice that throws off the usual Hollywood shackles of sentimentality or preachment to show us grave matters in an unblinking light--the murders of two children, the forced levity in the last meeting of a condemned man and his helpless family, the bravery and bewilderment of a go-between, the possibilities of grace.

In the end, Robbins and company offer no real answers to the death-penalty dilemma (which for so many is already a dead issue), but it raises the old questions with discomfiting force, like a jolt of poison.


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