I had seen this film before but only once and at least 12 years ago. The impact of the film then was pretty devastating – the scene when Matthew Poncelet is executed, intercut as it is with scenes of the Walter and Hope killings – has haunted me all these years, and I admit I felt some trepidation in revisiting it now; I wasn’t sure I wanted those images refreshed in my mind. I was curious, however, to see if my memory would match a renewed viewing of the film. I remember thinking then that one thing I most appreciated about the film was that though it was what we might call an issue-driven film, I didn’t feel pushed or manipulated towards one conclusion or the other. I very much dislike issue films – I hate being preached to and mostly, I hate the fact the issue films often overwhelm the story and the characters.
This film though, absolutely, holds up; the characters and the story are vivid and central, and while it is a film about capital punishment, while it does push the idea that the use of capital punishment seems mostly to be driven by politicians who want to be re-elected, while it does push the idea that capital punishment is meted out only to those who can’t afford high-powered lawyers so that the poor are at a disadvantage, ultimately, the film raises a question or questions (namely, I think, “if a murderer is a human being, is it just or satisfying to take that human’s life?”) that it doesn’t presume to answer in an absolute way.
Matthew Poncelet, played brilliantly by Sean Penn (and I’m not really a big Penn fan), is not presented as merely an innocent from a disadvantaged background who has been taken advantage of by the system– yes, he came from a poor family, yes, he was mostly without a loving father, but the film doesn’t really offer those things as a justification or even reason for his crime. It doesn’t give a reason, in fact, for his crime, and as Sister Helen Prejean (played, also humanely and delicately, by Susan Sarandon) discovers, Poncelet gives us and her very little to love in himself (though she is determined to do so because of her conviction that he is a human being who can be loved, who can be redeemed). He spews racism and misogyny; he is callous, it seems, to the suffering of the victims’ families (even in the end when he apologizes to the families, it’s not clear what his motivations are – is he truly sorry or is he just afraid of death?). He is, truly, repellent, and the film highlights rather than hides from this fact. I still have the image in my mind of Poncelet’s heavy, hooded eyelids,
and I have to shudder.
The film also faces, head-on, the grief and devastation of Walter and Hope’s respective parents. The structure of the film works wonderfully in this respect as the first part of the story dwells only with Poncelet and Sister Helen, the development of their relationship, and then Sister Helen is brought up short when the parents ask her why she has not bothered to hear their side of the story. The scenes in which she visits the parents, sees pictures of the young Walter and young Hope, hears about their life hopes and dreams, and sees the emptiness of the grief-stricken homes are absolutely moving, and the anger of the parents is completely sympathetic, never heavy-handed. The film will not/does not excuse or justify the murders.
The scene of Poncelet’s execution, too, is powerful and beautifully done, if horrifying, on several levels: Poncelet, at this point, has become a human being for us – a human being who has committed a horrifying crime, but still a human being, not a monster, (a term for Poncelet used throughout the film by the parents and by politicians – a term which helps, the film implies, to justify his execution), a frightened human being who has, just moments before, shown us his love for his family (there’s a beautiful scene in which Poncelet spends his last hours with his mother and brothers – they don’t really know what to say to each other, but they clearly love each other) and shown us the tears and emotion and fear he has kept from seeing until now. The execution scene, though, does not allow us to feel only sympathy for Poncelet – as I said earlier, it’s intercut with images of the murders of Walter and Hope, murders we have not seen in full until now, and as Poncelet dies, ghostly reflections of Walter and Hope shimmer on the glass which the separates the execution room from the viewing room, where the parents sit, hoping for some kind of relief from their burden.
The film does, ultimately, come down on the side of anti-capital punishment – Poncelet’s death is, again, not the death of a monster but of human being and we see that the parents do not really get any relief from Poncelet’s execution. Walter’s father’s struggle, in particular, speaks to this when at the end, we see him watching from the side at Poncelet’s funeral and speaking with Sister Helen – still longing for some kind of resolution, still angry, but not knowing how to find peace: “I don’t know why I’m here,” he says. And we see that the grief of the parents has not been lessened but grief generally has only increased as a new grief is given to another set of human beings: Poncelet’s family – his brothers and his mother.
In sum, I have to say that this was still a difficult film to watch – but it’s difficult for good reasons – I didn’t feel I was told what to think and I felt the reality of each of the characters, so well-acted, and their respective struggles.