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Film review: Dead Man Walking

Illuminating, yet disturbing, film touches deeply and gives balanced view from all sides.

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Since the principals, Tim Robbins and his significant other Susan Sarandon, come from the loud left, it's understandable if audience-members enter the theater expecting "Dead Man Walking" to be a bombastic diatribe against the death penalty.

But instead, Robbins offers up a remarkably balanced view of all sides of the issue, including those most-often neglected parties, the families of the victims.

The result is a profoundly affecting film that will touch you deeply and perhaps even prompt you to re-examine your notions about the issues at hand.

Based on a non-fiction book by a Catholic nun, Sister Helen Prejean, the film is essentially her story, focusing on her relationship with a condemned killer whose execution date is imminent.

In the beginning, Sister Helen merely agrees to become a pen pal to Matthew Poncelet, but it isn't long before she's going to the prison on a regular basis and, gradually, she becomes his personal counselor.

To be sure, Sister Helen has a few preconceived notions about what to expect, but it isn't long before they're all shattered. Her conversations with Matthew raise all sorts of questions. While he challenges her beliefs, she also challenges his, and the give-and-take is illuminating. But it's also disturbing.

Even more troubling are Sister Helen's encounters with the families of the victims of Matthew's crime. Their rage is inconsolable, and her visits with them reveal families in turmoil and a depth of pain that may never be relieved.

Robbins' script is crisp and clear, and it doesn't take any easy roads. But it also benefits from superlative performances by the lead players.

Despite her work in Louisiana slums, Sister Helen is no self-righteous zealot. And like the movie itself, she doesn't pretend to have all the answers. Sarandon captures her piety and her humanity perfectly, and as a director, Robbins uses those terrific eyes of hers to great advantage, perfectly framing them in close-up shots.

Matching her performance is Sean Penn as Matthew, who eschews the usual cinematic road, making no bones about his character being a lowlife, racist thug. Even if you come to care about Matthew as a human being, you won't like him. You will admire Penn, however.

The supporting players are also excellent, especially as the film explores the families involved. And not just the victims' families, but also Matthew and Sister Helen's respective parents and siblings.

My only complaint is that in flashbacks we see too much of the crime of which Matthew has been convicted. The rape and murder here are, by modern R-rated movie standards, fairly discreet, but graphic, nonetheless.

As an actor, Robbins has been seen most recently in "IQ" and "The Shawshank Redemption," and as a writer-director, he gave us the pointed political satire "Bob Roberts." As fine as all of those movies are, there is nothing to prepare us for the power and effective use of cinematic storytelling that is evident in "Dead Man Walking."

A marvelous and tremendously moving high-wire act, this film will have you thinking and talking as you leave the theater, but more importantly it will also have you feeling.

And it's nice to see a filmmaker who respects his audience this much, allowing for intelligence and common sense to come into play, and infusing the film with religion, but without Hollywood's usual condescending attitude.

"Dead Man Walking" is rated R for violence, rape, profanity, racial epithets and brief nudity.