Holiday Spirit With a Somber Tone
'Dead Man Walking' illustrates a new willingness to deal with substantial issues
Is the holiday season a felicitous time to release "Dead Man Walking," a movie so serious and sober that it makes pictures like "Restoration" and "Richard III" look positively playful?Skip to next paragraph
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I thought it was a miscalculation at first, but on second thought I've decided the idea has plenty of merit. True enough, one main character is a convicted killer on death row, and the movie reenacts his awful crime in brutal detail, leaving no doubt as to the wickedness of the criminal and the anguish he's wrought on his victim and her family.
But the other protagonist is a Roman Catholic nun who befriends him, assists him in appealing his sentence, and helps him prepare for possible punishment. She believes in her Christian calling with all her heart, and stands by her conviction that the least among us - even those despised by society for what seem unchallengeable reasons - are still God's children, deserving of compassion in their hours of need.
Since this is a profoundly Christian message, its appearance just after Christmas seems more than justified, even if it isn't likely to win the box-office competition with "Toy Story" and other light entertainments.
"Dead Man Walking" may also signal a new willingness by some filmmakers to take on meaningful subjects that churn up thought instead of pacifying it with fluff.
"Cry, the Beloved Country" is another late-year release that engages with difficult issues (including the death penalty) via a compelling narrative and dignified performances. Based on the respected Alan Paton novel, this film also has a deeply religious person as a main character - an Anglican priest in South Africa during apartheid - and demonstrates that Christian ideas can enter the social arena in ways that are neither as mean-spirited nor as narrow-minded as some being touted in American politics.
Other new movies deal with hefty topics as well. "Nixon" asks audiences to ponder historical, geopolitical, and constitutional issues for more than three hours of chronologically complex storytelling. "Twelve Monkeys" brings ecological safety and animal-rights activism into its wild tale about a time-traveling mission. Even the misconceived "White Man's Burden" has weighty things on its mind as it explores racial antagonism in a hypothetical United States where color roles are reversed.
None of these movies is likely to lure many viewers from the romances ("Sabrina") and comedies ("Jumanji") and melodramas ("Heat") and sequels ("Father of the Bride Part II") that studios hope will make their fortunes this season. But it's refreshing to see that social and political topics are not entirely absent from multiplex screens as the decade passes its midpoint.
Equally heartening is the willingness of some writers and directors to abandon the knee-jerk happy endings that have perennially fueled and falsified Hollywood pictures. Viewers of the superbly acted "Georgia" (see story, right) or the vividly filmed "Leaving Las Vegas" will find no last-minute panaceas to smooth over the sadly self-destructive behaviors these films harrowingly depict.