Thursday, July 14, 2011

Dead Man Walking

1995, 122m

Violence is deeply rooted in human beings and this film ends up making a case more in favor of capital punishment even as it set out to do the opposite. Although it examines the issue from different viewpoints, the one emotion that comes across authentically is the pain, anger and grief of the two sets of parents of the murdered teenagers. Sean Penn as the condemned man gives a fine portrayal as a man of impaired mental development. He is obstinate, feeling-less and vain and only impending death hours or minutes away bursts his dams of defense. As he finally "walks" the sister encourages him about death on the basis of her faith and it is at this point alone that the film achieves moments of transcendence.

The abolitionist viewpoint is subtle and goes against our "natural" grain of thinking. The Catholic nun with her armory of  faith becomes an object of ridicule from all quarters including her clerical colleagues and even the condemned man himself who only wants to use her as an intermediary to exhaust all legal stratagems to change the death penalty to life imprisonment. The execution of the death by lethal injection is graphically portrayed and the cold machinery of state sanctioned death is the only chilling argument of what seems like necessary justice. The process of execution is described by the lawyer defending him:

We strap the guy up. We anesthetize him with shot number one. Then we give him shot number two which implodes his lungs.And shot number three stops his heart.We put him to death just like an old horse. His face just goes to sleep while inside, his organs are going through Armageddon. His facial muscles would contort, but shot number one relaxes those muscles. So we don't have to see any horror show. We don't have to taste the blood of revenge while this human being's organs writhe, twist, contort. We just sit there quietly,nod our heads and say: "Justice has been done."

Intellectually, it is easy to argue against capital punishment, but only an unusual sea change in our habitual thinking could give it substance.

Th sensational subject of the film manages to grip your attention till the end. The gruesome crime itself is depicted in short segments like pieces of a jig saw spread through the movie and the picture completes only towards the end. One gets the feeling of pieces sewed up, rather than being apiece. The film is an adequate and fleshed out but somewhat superficial treatment, with an eye to the box office. One may be tempted to compare it with Dekalog 5.


Ronak M Soni said...

How does it make a case for capital punishment? By showing us how sad the parents are? Is that really enough to condone the lawful taking of a man's life?

S. M. Rana said...

@ Ronak

Questions like abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment and even suicide are interlinked and not simple to address.

I agree with you that life is sacred and taking of a life, and that too a human one is hard to defend. Logically one needs to abolish not just capital punishment but war and the manufacture of weapons intended for destruction of human life.

All I am asserting is that the movie is unable to make it's case. The case for abolition is harder to make and the movie is unable to make a convincing case, just like Dekalog 5. After all, "an eye for an eye" is easier to understand than things like "turn the other cheek" and non-violence.