Matthew Poncelet has been in prison for six years, awaiting his execution after being sentenced to death for killing a teenage couple. Poncelet, held in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, committed the crimes with a man named Carl Vitello, who was sentenced to life imprisonment. As the day of his execution comes closer, Poncelet asks Sister Helen, with whom he has corresponded, to help him with a final appeal.
She decides to visit him. He is arrogant, sexist, and racist, not even pretending to feel any kind of remorse. He affirms his innocence, insisting Vitello killed the two teenagers. Convincing an experienced attorney to take on Poncelet's case pro bono, Sister Helen tries to have his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. After many visits, she establishes a special relationship with him. At the same time, she gets to know Poncelet’s mother, Lucille, and the families of the two victims. The families do not understand Sister Helen's efforts to help Poncelet, claiming she is "taking his side." Instead they desire "absolute justice"—his life for the lives of their children.
Sister Helen’s application for a pardon is declined. Poncelet asks Sister Helen to be his spiritual adviser through the day of execution, and she agrees. Sister Helen tells Poncelet that his redemption is possible only if he takes responsibility for what he did. Just before he is taken from his cell, Poncelet admits to Sister Helen that he killed the boy and raped the girl. As he is prepared for execution, he appeals to the boy's father for forgiveness and tells the girl's parents he hopes his death brings them peace. Poncelet is executed by lethal injection and later given a proper burial. The murdered boy's father attends the ceremony still filled with hate, but shortly after begins to pray with Sister Helen, ending the film.Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen Prejean
Sean Penn as Matthew Poncelet
Margo Martindale as Sister Colleen
Robert Prosky as Hilton Barber
Lois Smith as Augusta Bourg Prejean, Helen's mother
Jack Black as Craig Poncelet
Celia Weston as Mary Beth Percy
Raymond J. Barry as Earl Delacroix
R. Lee Ermey as Clyde Percy
Michael Cullen as Carl Vitello
Scott Wilson as Chaplain Farlely
Roberta Maxwell as Lucille Poncelet
Peter Sarsgaard as Walter Delacroix
Missy Yager as Hope Percy
The film was a family affair for director Tim Robbins. In addition to his longtime companion Susan Sarandon starring, his father Gil Robbins played Bishop Norwich, mother Mary Robbins played an aide to the governor, his sister Adele Robbins played a nurse, and sons Jack and Miles had small roles. His brother, David Robbins, composed the score.
The film was well received by critics. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 95% positive rating based on reviews from 57 critics. Metacritic gives it a rating of 80/100 based on reviews from 26 critics, indicating "Generally favorable reviews."
Hal Hinson of The Washington Post commented: "What this intelligent, balanced, devastating movie puts before us is nothing less than a contest between good and evil." Kenneth Turan of The Los Angeles Times described the acting: "For this kind of straight-ahead movie to work, the acting must be strong without even a breath of theatricality, and in Penn and Sarandon, 'Dead Man Walking' has performers capable of making that happen." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four stars, his highest rating, and called it "absorbing, surprising, technically superb and worth talking about for a long time afterward."
At the 68th Academy Awards, Dead Man Walking was nominated in four different categories: Susan Sarandon won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role, Sean Penn was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, Tim Robbins was nominated for Best Director and its main track "Dead Man Walkin'" by Bruce Springsteen was nominated for Best Song.
At the Golden Globes, Sarandon and Penn received nominations for their acting while Robbins received one for best screenplay. At the 46th Berlin International Film Festival, Penn won the Silver Bear for Best Actor.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2003: AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains:
Sister Helen Prejean – Nominated Hero
2004: AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs:
"Dead Man Walking'" – Nominated
2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
Dead Man Walking debuted on December 29, 1995, in the United States. With a budget of $11 million, the film grossed $39,387,284 domestically and $43,701,011 internationally, for a total of $83,088,295 worldwide.
In 2002, Tim Robbins, who adapted the book for the film, also wrote a stage version of Dead Man Walking. It has also been adapted as an opera by the same name, premiering in San Francisco.
Yvonne Koslovsky-Golan, author of The Death Penalty in American Cinema: Criminality and Retribution in Hollywood Film, stated that even though public debate on the death penalty increased for a period after the release of Dead Man Walking, the film did not result in "real political or legal change" but that it did encourage additional academic study on the death penalty.