Dead Man Walking is a film based on the book of the same name – it recounts the experiences of Sister Helen Prejean, a nun from Louisiana. It focuses on her relationship with Matthew Poncelet, a convicted murderer on Death Row. There are five main themes that run through the film, and these are brought together during the execution scene.
The themes are as follows: the ongoing suffering of the families of the victims of Poncelet’s crime, the connections between Christianity and the death penalty, the gradual bonding of Helen Prejean and Matthew Poncelet, and that the death penalty is simply unpleasant.
Robbins uses several different techniques to present the process of state execution as a very cold, clinical process.
The uniformed officers present also add to the orderly feel of Poncelet’s execution, as does the typing of the witness forms in the previous scene. Robbins conveys a sense of precision during the execution by using several camera techniques and effects; as the final syringe empties, Prejean finishes praying and opens her eyes.
The screen then jumps to a shot of Poncelet’s unmoving face. His eyes open for the final time, and he is pronounced dead. One of the strongest techniques Robbins uses to give the viewer a feeling of precision is the shots of the clock.
Before the scene begins, we are shown, between dialogues, the clock in the hall – every hour, on the half hour, until 11:30. As Poncelet is saying his last words, the clock can be seen, in the background, reminding us that he will never utter another sound again.
When Poncelet is strapped to the gurney, we see the clock strike midnight, and the officers begin the execution. Being shown the clock gives the viewer the feeling that Poncelet’s life is simply being ebbed away. This certainly influences the viewer towards the anti-death penalty stance.
During Poncelet’s execution, we see a set of flashbacks of his crime. The execution and his crime are synchronised, that is to say, the first flashback begins when the officers initiate the execution machine and the last flashback ends when Poncelet’s heart monitor produces the ‘dead’ sound. Because clips of his crime are shown between clips of his execution, our opinions sway back and forth between anti- and pro-death penalty, just as they do throughout the whole film – we begin to empathise with Poncelet, and then he does something (or something is revealed) that turns us against him.
During the flashbacks, we clearly see his accomplice committing the same crimes for which Poncelet is receiving the death penalty – this clarifies for the final time in the film the fact that those who can afford high-quality legal advice are rarely sentenced to death (a point which is illustrated in the appeal scene by Poncelet’s lawyer). Not only is the viewer made to see the execution process as clinical, it is also made to seem cruel and barbaric.
As Poncelet is taken to the execution room, one of the officers holding his legs announces his presence by shouting: “Dead man walking! This gives the viewer the sense that Poncelet’s has already been executed, and, since death is seen as a taboo, announcing ‘death before death’ creates unrest in our minds about the execution. Poncelet’s last words also add to the portrayal of the death penalty as cruel – he is strapped to the gurney, in an upright position, and he says, through tears, “I know killing is wrong, whether it’s me, or y’all, or the government. ” He also addresses Mr. Delacroix, and asks for forgiveness, and then the Percies, and tells them that he hopes his death brings some relief to their lives.
This shows that Poncelet is remorseful, which makes the viewer sympathise with him, and therefore makes the viewer biased against the death penalty. From the beginning of the execution scene, Prejean is wearing black. This is significant because Prejean had previously been wearing pastel coloured clothes, and her wearing black is a sign of mourning – again, we see the idea of ‘death before death’, which further turns us against the death penalty. Poncelet, however, is wearing a white t-shirt, when he had previously been wearing blue overalls.
In the previous scene, Poncelet confessed to Prejean to killing Walter Delacroix. He wears white because his confession marked the cleansing of his guilt, and white is a sign of purity and cleansing. The fact that he is wearing white also ties in with Isaiah 43:1. Because he is wearing white during his execution, we get a sense of killing a pure being, which we generally believe to be fundamentally wrong, so makes the viewer believe that the death penalty is a bad thing.
Throughout the film, we see the relationship between Prejean and Poncelet develop – this is shown not only by their emotions, but by the physical barriers between them. At first, there is wire mesh separating them (and the camera shows the wire mesh in front of Poncelet, not, however, in front of Prejean, making the viewer feel closer to Prejean and more distanced from Poncelet), then glass, and then metal bars. Their relationship peaks during the execution scene, when Prejean touches Poncelet, and finally kisses his shoulder as he walks into the execution chamber.
Throughout the scene, Prejean echoes Poncelet’s body language – for example, Prejean’s arm is extended, as if to touch Poncelet, when he is strapped to the gurney with both his arms perpendicular to his torso, or the muscular twitches in both their faces – Prejean’s because she is finally coming to terms with his crime and his death – yet again, we see ‘death before death’ – Poncelet’s because the muscle relaxant is taking its effect. This is another way in which we see the relationship between them develop – their body language and position become more and more similar as the film progresses.
Because the whole film is shot from the point of view of Helen Prejean, we have the same attitude towards Poncelet as Prejean does – if Poncelet does something to make Prejean angry, we too feel less sympathetic towards him and his position, and if Prejean gets emotionally close to Poncelet, we sympathise with him more – hence we feel closest to him as he is dying. This too makes the death penalty seem unjust. At the beginning of the execution scene, Poncelet’s legs give way, and Prejean comforts him, telling him “the truth has made you free”.
Earlier in the film, Prejean encouraged Poncelet to read his Bible – and told him that “the truth will set you free”. At first, Poncelet believed that the ‘truth’ that Prejean referred to was that he had not actually committed the crime that he had been accused of – in fact, she meant that Poncelet needed to confess to the part he played in the crime – and that this would make his mind free. The second time Prejean talks to Poncelet about the truth, it is clear that Poncelet understands what Prejean means.
As Poncelet is being walked to the execution chamber, Prejean places her hand on Poncelet’s shoulder and reads from the Bible he gave her – Isaiah, Chapter 43, Verse 1: “Fear not: for I have redeemed thee”. Prejean reading to Poncelet from the Bible is a small part of the theme of religion that runs through the whole film. Earlier in the film we see a discussion between Prejean and an unnamed chaplain – the chaplain vehemently opposes Prejean becoming Poncelet’s spiritual advisor during his time on Death Row.
This conversation tells the viewer that not all Christians are opposed to the death penalty – in fact, many Christians, whether situated in the Bible Belt or not, have a strong belief in the death penalty. While she is reading to him, the camera zooms in on her hand. There is a wedding ring on her finger, symbolising her marriage to Christ. The close-up of the ring on her finger and of her reading the Bible to him both remind the viewer that she originally came to Poncelet’s aid as part of her religious vocation, and the fact that the Bible she is reading from was a gift from Poncelet to her is another manifestation of the bond between them.
One of the few pro-death penalty arguments that the film puts forward is the victims’ families’ suffering. When Prejean enters the viewing room, we see Mr. Delacroix and the Percies. The camera shows them side-on, with their shoulders turned towards Prejean and Poncelet’s lawyer. This emphasises their hostility towards Prejean. After one of the flashbacks, we see Poncelet lying unconscious through the glass of the viewing room.
We do not, however, see the viewers reflected in the glass, but we see the faces of Hope Percy and Walter Delacroix. This gives us the feeling that Poncelet has finally paid for his crime, and that the victims have been put to rest. Although the execution scene makes an attempt to be unbiased towards the death penalty, there is more in the scene opposing the death penalty than there is to make us biased towards it – in fact, there is very little obviously pro-death penalty content in the film.