Basement Songs: “Dead Man Walking”
The execution of Troy Davis was cause for me to revisit Dead Man Walking, the 1995 drama written and directed by Tim Robbins. Adapted from Sister Helen Prejean’s book of the same name, the film stars Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn in masterful performances. Sarandon won the Academy Award for portraying Prejean and Penn was nominated for his portrayal of convicted murderer, Matthew Poncelet ( a composite of the men Prejean wrote in her book). In addition to the exceptional stars, Dead Man Walking also features superb acting from its supporting cast, including Margo Martindale, R. Lee Ermey and Raymond J. Barry (Jack Black also appears, in a rare dramatic role, and if you look closely you’ll see a young Peter Sarsgaard). It’s Barry’s depiction of Earl Delacroix, one of the grieving parents that struck me the first time I watched the film, and it resonated even more now that I am a father of two.
Delacroix is a man struggling with his conscience. He’s filled with hatred for Matthew taking the life of his only son and the Delacroix family name. A part of him wants to believe that Poncelet’s death by lethal injection will somehow ease the burden of his soul. Yet, as a devout Catholic, he is also filled with regret that he wants to see another human being die. Barry shows us a man who is carrying around everything that is complex and horrible about the death penalty. While some are strongly for it and others against it, there are people who live in the gray area. Perhaps they were against it, but then their life was affected by murder and now they struggle with understanding and accepting the “eye for an eye” mentality. At the very end of the movie, Delacroix and Sister Helen are seen praying together in a church. A sense of home permeates from this last scene, a sense that someday Earl may find peace, even though he doubts it.
Dead Man Walking was not a film that I saw in the theater. When it was released, I still went to the movies with my wife. Although she would occasionally subject herself to some of my intense dramatic selections, a movie about the death penalty never would have appealed to her. I wound up watching it on laser disc one summer afternoon while she was at work. I never anticipated that the film would have such a lasting effect on me. The theme of love, and the many facets of this emotion, are played out in in various forms throughout Robbins’ movie. The parents of the victims loved their children so deeply that they would sit and watch a man die. Meanwhile, the mother of Matthew Poncelet grieves over the loss of her son, both spiritually and physically. And of course, the role of God and how one loves God or accepts God’s love is integral to this powerful motion picture. Sarandon is our eyes to the different faces of love and her quiet, soulful acting really provides so much heart and strength to this movie.
In the mid-90’s, I was a twentysomething married man with few thoughts of a family. I appreciated Dead Man Walking for the even-handed way the director and his cast dealt with the hot button issue. Now that I’m a forty year old father, I can fully appreciate the anguish that the characters in the film go through, having lost their children. While I can’t comprehend how one survives the death of a child- it seems that the heartbreak would be too much- I do understand the place where they are coming from.
I think of myself as anti-death penalty. You look at the case of Troy Davis, one with too many questions and doubts that may never be answered. As long as his guilt was in question, he should not have been executed. Instead, another mother watched her son die and another family may be left wrestling with their consciences. How would I react if this happened to someone in my family? All I can say, in all honesty, is I don’t know. We’re human. We change our minds and create opinions based on situations and experiences. And if something happened to someone in my family, or God forbid, my children, my heart would likely want revenge. However, I hope that with time love and compassion would eventually win out. I pray I never have to find out.
I pray that for you.