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Dead Man Walking – Film Analysis

For many years, the death penalty has been a punishment for severe crimes. However, the law has long moved on since then, and more humane ways of death have been devised for the few states where the death penalty is still legal. Lethal injection is now the main way of carrying out the penalty, and Texas is the state that uses it most. It is a very controversial punishment and the moral issues have been debated for a very long time. Many protests have been made to try and change this law, and they have been successful in most countries. The film ‘Deadman walking’ is set in the state of Louisiana, near Texas and re-enacts an ethical case where a decision whether to sentence a murderer to death or not has to be made. During the film, we can never be certain whether Tim Robbins is in favour, or against the death penalty. He uses very effective methods to represent both sides of this moral argument.

For example, his methods include his choice of the character Matthew Poncelet, his choice of Sister Helen Prejean, sound effects and music, flashbacks, characters’ viewpoints, costumes and many more. One of the most important of these techniques is the way he has decided to present his main character, Sister Helen Prejean. The first time we see Helen Prejean is when she is driving to the ‘Hope House’ in her car. There is happy music in the background, which is another media technique used by director Tim Robbins to suggest to us that she is a likeable person. Also, there is a scene skipping, between her driving, and a video of her confirmation. We can tell it is a video because it has a sepia effect, and has fewer frames per second. The scene of Helen driving uses mainly a close-up camera shot, possibly because the director wants to stress Helen’s cheerful face.

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Later on, she reads the first letter from Matthew Poncelet, which is narrated by him. He is asking Helen for some legal help because his lawyer ‘seems to have disappeared ‘. Even while Matthew’s letter is being narrated, the cheerful music is still playing, but very quiet in the background. This is done on purpose by the director to show us that there is still some good in Matthew Poncelet. The music stops after the reading of Poncelet’s second letter when Helen meets Chaplain Farley to talk about the job she is about to face. When Matthew Poncelet is first introduced to us, he is on death row. From his letter to Sister Helen Prejean, we start to feel early sympathy for him, as he talks about how scared he is, for example when he explains his dream about God as a chef, ready to kill and eat him. Also, he denies responsibility for the murders for which he was placed on death row.

This too sways the balance of the death penalty against, because we feel he is being treated unjustly. Tim Robbins does this with an interesting media technique, as a voiceover, from when Helen is in her car. The first impression we get of him is very important because it allows us to feel for him throughout the film. However, the director tries not to allow you to come to a conclusion on the death penalty so early on; instead, he shows scenes of Matthew Poncelet, which portray him as a cold-hearted killer. We see flashbacks of him and Carl Vitello raping and murdering Hope Percy and Walter Delacroix. The flashbacks we see are very disturbing and we are back to a neutral position on the death penalty argument. This is a motif that occurs throughout the film, allowing us to feel sympathy for both Matthew and the families of those that were killed, with taking one side too strongly.

The choice of actor that the director chose to play Matthew is also very important, particularly the way he looks. He looks like a stereotypical criminal, because of his large muscular build and intimidating face. His outer image makes him seem very tough, and when we see him cry, we feel for him even more, as we think it must take a lot to make such a proud and egotistical man cry. Sister Helen Prejean first meets Matthew Poncelet on death row, when he is desperate for someone to talk to about his sentence. However, Helen already knew a bit about Matthew from the letter that he wrote her. During the build-up to their first face-to-face meeting, while Helen is walking into death row, we see some more scene skipping. The director keeps skipping from her walking to the incident where the murders took place. Helen’s face, while walking through the gates, looked very nervous. The camera uses a medium-close shot and tracking Sister Helen as she walked.

The flashback scenes are what Helen knows about the murders. From these flashbacks, I notice that the killers’ faces were not revealed. This shows that Helen was not at all sure whether Matthew had committed the murders or not. Helen does not talk to any of the guards while walking to meet Matthew Poncelet. Instead, when they talk to her, she simply nods. This is a way in which Tim Robbins emphasizes her nerves at this point. Matthew is very cocky towards Helen Prejean in their first meeting. He tries to act manly, and pretend he isn’t at all scared about what will happen to him if his appeals are unsuccessful. Poncelet, at first, didn’t want to let Helen know anything about his part in the murders. All he said about it was ‘I didn’t kill anybody ‘, and blames everything on Carl. Also, he seems very tense around her, possibly because she was the only woman he had seen, and was going to see for quite a long time, about six years.

While she is leaving death row, you still hear Matthews voice playing over, it carries on even whilst Helen is in her car driving home. Later on, still during the phase when he is putting on an act around her, Matthew tries to come on to Sister Helen. He realizes his mistake almost instantly and after this event, Helen is soon able to appeal to his emotional side. The reactions and emotions of Matthew Poncelet’s family sway us against the death penalty, as we see how they are suffering, even though they are innocent. When we first see Mrs. Poncelet, she seems very timid and was reluctant to answer the door to Helen. This was because she was used to being bombarded by the press. She seemed as if she had not been out of the house for a long time, and she pretended not to be in, in case the press had come again. When she finally let Helen in and they got talking, she seemed very stressed, and it was as if she was on the verge of crying. She seems very angry about what Matthew had done. Straight away, she assumed the reason that Helen came was negative. “So what do you want?

Mattie send you for money for cigarettes?” she asked. By the way, she is dressed, you can tell she is quite poor, but earlier, you see a shot of two of her other children, and they are dressed slightly better. The medium camera shot used when Sister Helen is talking to Mrs. Poncelet makes sure you can see the difference in clothing between them. This shows that she loves her children and does what she can for them. She also talks about how Matthew’s actions have affected her other kids. She sounds very upset when talking about how other boys from school pick on them. Overall, she is portrayed as a caring person. She accepts Helen’s invitation to attend the appeal. The courtroom scene at first influences us against the death penalty, both when we see Mrs. Poncelet leaving the room in tears and with Hilton Barber’s arguments. However, the prosecution lawyer evens out the balance with his arguments.

The appeal scene begins with Mrs. Poncelet speaking about her son. Immediately she begins crying, whilst talking about what a nice person her son is. She does exactly what Hilton Barber expected, and he wanted her to do this to portray Matthew as a human being, rather than a monster. Poncelet’s lawyer straight away starts in a negative way. He puts himself down by saying Matthew Poncelet couldn’t afford a good lawyer and could only take what the state gave him. Also, when he is talking, he remains seated behind a desk, which shows signs of him being nervous. He has not argued a case for a long time, as he had retired and only returned for this one case. Hilton tries to get the sympathy vote from the panel, by pleading that everyone deserves to live and explaining in detail how lethal injection works. When he starts talking, Tim Robbins uses the voiceover technique to show how upset Matthew’s mother was, but also let us hear Hilton Barber’s argument. The prosecution lawyer, however, was a well-trained professional.

You could tell this by the smart way in which he dressed, and the way in which he walked around the room confidently whilst he spoke, and also spoke convincingly. He had the arrogance of youth and was able to directly accuse Matthew of the crimes. He says “This man shot Walter Delacroix two times in the back of the head.” He mainly emphasizes the pain of the bereaved families and stresses on everything they will be missing out on. Throughout the scene, the distance of framing was varied. When the lawyers are talking, normally medium close-ups were used but a long camera shot was used to show the reactions of everyone in the courtroom when Mrs. Poncelet started crying during her speech. A lot of the time, the camera was panning along the line of the panel, facing the lawyers. This lets us see the case from the panels’ point of view. Both arguments however are very strong, and it is still hard for us to come to a decision as to whether the death penalty should or should not still exist.

Matthew Poncelet’s appeal was unsuccessful. His death was still set to happen as scheduled. Later on, on the day of his execution, Matthew was allowed some time with his family. This scene starts off very happily. The first sounds we hear are the laughs of all the family. They manage to avoid the fact that Matthew would be executed that day. This was possible because they all found it too awkward to talk about in front of him, or because they simply want their last moments together as a family to be happy. However, they reminisce about how things were before the murders. This would seem like a sad, emotional thing to be talking about, but they managed to just focus on the good times. Sister Helen is very much left out of this conversation because she did not know Matthew until a very short time ago. Also, from her face, she looks too emotional to be asking questions. We can tell that she had developed feelings for Matthew, and even though she didn’t like him at first, she has managed to bond with him and realize he is a good person.

She likes the way that Matthew is very close to the rest of his family, especially when he is able to get a confession from his little brother just by asking. She finds this funny, just as the rest of the family does. Straight after this, Matthew’s mother talks about his funeral and completely kills off the happy atmosphere. She realizes that what she said was inappropriate immediately, as her face drops and there is a long silence. Tim Robbins shows how inappropriate this was by letting us see exactly how long the silence lasted. We see a shot of the clock when the silence starts, and also when it is broken by a guard telling them visiting time was over. However, the guard comes early, and Matthew argues that his family can stay longer. This shows how much he loves his family because even though they were not saying anything, he still wants them there for as long as possible. Because this portrays Matthew as a good human being, we are inclined to think it would be morally wrong to kill him. This swings the balance of the death penalty.

Throughout this scene, many media techniques were used to heavily emphasize the importance of it. For example, starting with the whole family laughing automatically sets a happy atmosphere. Also, a medium-long shot was used whenever the camera was on Matthew. This lets us see the guards staring closely at him and his family as if he could not be trusted alone with them. The most effective, however, was a long silence, with just the sound of squeaking shoes as Troy walked around the room. We got the full effect of the twenty-minute silence without having to watch the whole thing. Tim Robbins did this by showing two shots of the clock, at the start and end. The emphasis on time partly shows Matthews’s nerves and also builds tension as we see how close the execution is.

After this scene is when Matthew is told his appeals were unsuccessful, and there is a long, detailed build-up to Matthew’s death, now that it is for certain. His death had already been recorded, even though he was still alive. This build-up was very emotional, especially for Matthew and Helen, as this is when Matthew confesses that he murdered Walter Delacroix and raped Hope Percy. Helen, even though she too was crying, was happy that Matthew had confessed, as she thinks he has earned dignity by confessing. Matthew is very grateful towards Helen for standing by him in the built-up to his death, and he shows his gratefulness to Helen by saying “Thank you for loving me.” You can tell that Matthew Poncelet is very scared during the build-up to his execution. He tries to distract himself from the fear in different ways, for example, by making a big fuss about his boots and arguing for them. He keeps talking about them for a while even though he knew he was not going to get them back. Another way he distracted his fear was by showing his love towards Sister Helen Prejean.

The music while Matthew is walking to execution is also quite interesting. It is the complete opposite of the music we heard at the start of the film. This music is very sad and sounds like it’s being played in a major key. The only vocal you can hear in this piece is the sounds of someone whining, which also adds to the sadness effect. This music continues right through the death scene. The death scene is the most important scene in the film, as it is the main point where you are likely to gain a belief regarding the death penalty. The fact that Matthew is crying, and literally shaking with fear through this scene makes us feel sympathetic towards him. When Matthew says his last words, he is held up on the bed with his arms spread out. This is reminiscent of Jesus being crucified. A connection is made between the two, and this leads us to believe Matthew’s execution was also wrong.

However, just as we begin thinking the death penalty is wrong and immoral, we see disturbing flashbacks of Matthew Poncelet and Carl Vitello raping and murdering the two teenagers. This reminds us of why Matthew is in this position. While the liquids are being injected into Matthew, there is plenty of cutting between the two scenes of death, the execution and the murders of Hope and Walter. The scene ends on Matthew Poncelet’s death, which leaves it in our mind last. Straight away, we hear the voice of the priest speaking, as a voiceover at the very end of the execution scene. It carries through to the scene of Poncelet’s funeral.

Because the last things we see are the dead body of Matthew Poncelet, and people grieving at his funeral, the last thing we think of is how much pain the death penalty has caused. This leaves us thinking the death penalty is wrong. Although Tim Robins tries to even out the arguments for and against, the arguments against come over stronger, and overall, this film portrays the death penalty as immoral. The vast amounts of media techniques and character choices allow Tim Robbins to make us see exactly what he wants us to and this film is a very good example of how media is used effectively in films to get the right final impression.

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Dead Man Walking - Film Analysis. (2021, Apr 13). Retrieved May 11, 2021, from