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?

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.

No current film is more somber and single-minded than "Dead Man Walking," based on a book by Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote about her own experiences with a Louisiana convict. The movie stars Susan Sarandon as a nun who had never dreamed of visiting death row until she was contacted by a man living there.

Their acquaintance begins when the prisoner (Sean Penn) writes a letter begging for help. Approaching the situation with understandable caution, she listens to the condemned man's story - he admits he was present at the murders but claims his partner did all the killing - and agrees to lend a hand in the appeals process. Their relationship grows more complex as they get to know each other better and as it becomes more probable that he'll undergo the lethal injection they both dread.

It's noteworthy that "Dead Man Walking" was written and directed by Tim Robbins, whose previous picture was the political comedy "Bob Roberts," and that it stars Penn, another celebrity whose filmmaking projects lean toward thoughtful treatments of substantial subjects.

The movie is often preachy and self-conscious, especially in long dialogue scenes, where Robbins's inexpert scriptwriting makes people talk at instead of with each other. Yet the picture's solid assets enable it to soar above such problems, both intellectually and emotionally. Chief among these assets is Robbins's boldness in telling such a story - resounding with empathy for the misguided and unprivileged, bristling with anger at capital punishment - at a time when Hollywood rarely takes on political topics.

This said, it must be added that the clear political views of "Dead Man Walking" do not make it a one-sided polemic. Indeed, the movie works hard to make its death-row inmate the creepiest criminal since Hannibal Lector stalked the screen - not just a thug, but a bigot and hate-monger.

Robbins takes two big risks in calling for understanding and sympathy toward such an incorrigible character. One is that he'll turn off audiences from the start, harming the story's ability to engage hearts as well as minds. The other is that moviegoers will miss what I take to be the movie's point - a negative stance toward capital punishment - and will instead find execution a perfectly fitting fate for a hugely unlikable villain. This is how some people interpret Krzysztof Kieslowski's recent Polish drama "A Short Film About Killing," which shows a murder and an execution as comparably evil in their dehumanizing violence.

What makes "Dead Man Walking" one of the year's most encouraging screen events, however, is precisely its insistence on carrying compassionate convictions to their logical extreme, challenging viewers to consider perspectives on crime and punishment - including the Christian mandate to love one's enemy - that aren't heard very often these days.

All involved in the picture should be proud of it. This includes not only Robbins and his stars, Sarandon and Penn, but also the fine supporting players (including Robert Prosky, R. Lee Ermey, and Scott Wilson) and the film's many able technicians, most notably cinematographer Roger Deakins.

*"Dead Man Walking" has an R rating. It contains graphic reenactments of a horribly violent crime and much vulgar language.

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