The motion picture Dead Man Walking provided a non-fiction insight into the world of crime, justice, and capital punishment. The film cast several characters from different backgrounds and opinion sets in direct conflict with one another. Several small topics and one major topic, capital punishment, were explored over the duration of the movie. While the opinions and reactions of people to Dead Man Walking may vary, the one constant is that people will have a reaction.
Sister Helen Prejean, the Catholic nun, appeared to be a genuinely concerned person who took a real interest in the condemned prisoner. She came from a strong background but chose to ‘give back’ to others. Sister Helen explained her need to ‘give back’ during the film and appeared to be completely serious about her commitment to helping others. Sister Helen did not wear her habit during the course of the film.
Many people have a stereotypical vision of Catholic nuns: the habit, seemingly out-of-touch thoughts and ideals, and older and/or without any vitality. Sister Helen showed what being a Catholic and a Catholic nun is truly about. She accepted a call for help from a complete stranger.
Instead of turning away or giving up, she persisted, showing what love and, in a way, courage could do under such dire circumstances. Through it all, she did it with spirit, life, vitality, and strength. Her relationship with the convict, Matthew Poncelet, was on two levels. The first was as a friend and confidant. Sister Helen was the first to truly explore Matthew for Matthew. Others tried to learn about him, but only to vilify or condemn him.
The second level was as a messenger of religion, a messenger of God. For the very first time, Matthew was given the opportunity to realize his worth as a human, and his worth in the eyes of God. Through this understanding, he was able to realize the value of all human life, including those who he murdered. Sister Helen’s relationship with the families of Matthew and the victims was honest and up-front. She approached each with a hopeful attitude, trying to understand them while also trying to give them peace. In each instance, she was uncertain and apprehensive.
This fact is not surprising, however, because Sister Helen is only human, and her religion is human as well. The only path to certainty is, experience, and this was Sister Helen’s first time as spiritual advisor to a death-row inmate. All in all, Sister Helen was a shining example of strength, courage, and love that all people could look up to. At the beginning of the film, Matthew Poncelet was not a likable character.
He was stubborn, arrogant, biased, hateful, and seemed to want company only for his own amusement. He did not appear to care about his crime, nor those whose lives his crime changed forever. However, he appeared to let down a guard during the course of the film, which revealed a less-monstrous human being struggling internally with a fact about himself that he could not erase, with pride, and with a need to outlet his internal feelings.
His anger about his sentencing was justified; his accomplice and apparent leader was only given a life sentence while he was to die. While this is certainly an unfair situation, it is unfair because the accomplice deserved the maximum penalty under the law as much as Poncelet. Towards the end of the film, Poncelet appeared to be a changed person. He learned, with the help of Sister Helen, that the truth would save him.
And in admitting the truth, he learned the value of life and of love. He said in his final few hours, ‘…I needed to die to find love…’ But, in the end, he appeared to truly accept his actions, the repercussions of his actions, and his fate. He was truly sorry and changed in the end. Earl Delacroix was the father of the teenage boy who was murdered by Matthew Poncelet. He harbored a lot of hatred and sadness because of the slaying. To make matters worse, the murder of his son caused a rift between Earl and his wife, eventually leading to the filing of divorce papers.
In a way, Matthew Poncelet killed Earl’s son, his marriage, and his heart. Anyone whose interpersonal relationships have been affected by outside influences could easily relate to Earl, an honest man with a good heart. Obviously, anyone who has lost a child or even a loved one would relate to the strain, sadness, loss, and emptiness Earl felt after his son was suddenly taken from him.
But the feeling that many, including myself, can relate to is the helplessness when a relationship dear to you starts slipping away because of outside influences and situations that are beyond your control. Those situations do not need to involve murder, but they could include different family values, intolerant friends or family, sickness, employment differences or changes, geographical changes, educational differences, and more. Earl’s situation shows how fragile interpersonal relationships truly are, and how people must actively participate in relationships together, and not rely on one aspect to hold it strong. Earl’s son was that aspect of his marriage.
The parents of the slain teenage girl, whose daughter was not murdered by Poncelet but was raped by him, were justifiably upset when they learned that someone was taking the time to apparently try to save the murderer. They asked Sister Helen at one point ‘How can you sit with that scum?’, and asked her to leave their home when they realized that she had not become as bloodthirsty as they were.
It was understandable that they felt hurt by a Catholic nun’s decision to attempt to help someone who had no value for human life. However, their attacks on Sister Helen, no matter how passive-aggressive, were reprehensible. The family, unlike Mr. Delacroix, showed no interest in being helped to understand her situation. They simply wanted her, and everyone else, to call for blood. The family did not want to see any equal justice for Matthew Poncelet and his accomplice, they simply wanted either or both dead. Furthermore, it appeared that they needed Matthew’s death for themselves rather than for the sake of justice, or for their daughter.
At the end of the film, during Matthew’s last words to Earl Delacroix, they griped, ‘What about us?!’ One would wonder what would happen to their relationship after the death of Poncelet. Or, what would happen between them and their other daughter. The movie left such questions unanswered, but one is forced to question whether or not the capital punishment of Matthew Poncelet truly served as healing for that family, or whether it was only the beginning of trouble for them. People tend to hold on to a problem or severe, urgent situation as a driving force. Sometimes, without proper channeling of their feelings and anger, the closure of such a situation leaves a void too large to be overcome. While the answer may not be known in this particular case, their actions and statements cause viewers to question it.
The film shows that capital punishment affects more people and lives than one would perceive. It also shows there is value in every human life, and with proper guidance, anyone can change. Matthew Poncelet was not a danger to society at the end of the film. He had been humbled and had made a conscious decision to attempt, in any way he could, to ease the pain he had caused.
He provides hope that anyone in his situation could become a better person, and could possibly affect lives in a positive way. While it might be stretching such an observation to say that a convicted murderer should be let free, it would be fair to say that a life sentence is not merely wasting tax-dollars. A life sentence allows a person to reflect upon his or her past and change the person that he or she is. It allows for the possibility of helping others to not make the same mistakes. Sister Helen stated ‘I’m just trying to follow the example of Jesus who said every person is worth more than her/her worse act.’
This statement is relevant to her situation because indeed she was trying to show Matthew that he was a human being, not an animal or worse. She also was trying to help his family deal with Matthew’s actions, and move on knowing that he was a person who made a mistake. In many ways, that statement could very well have been the thesis statement of the movie. Sister Helen, like Jesus, befriended the society-labeled ‘vermin’, and gave him some semblance of self-worth, importance, and most important of all, dignity.