1995 piece of liberal propaganda
Plot: Convicted murderer and rapist Matthew Poncelet has nothing to do but count down the days to his execution and write letters to nuns. Sister Helen Prejean answers his letter with a visit, later helping him find a way to work on an appeal and becoming his spiritual counselor. She later is forced to interact with the family of his victims.
I thought this was going to be just a bunch of left-wing nutjobs asking me to be sympathetic to violent criminals, but that's not quite what's going on here. Somebody pro-death penalty could claim that director Tim Robbins et. al. are making an anti-death penalty statement with this and probably get away with saying it. However, this is as objective a cinematic approach to an issue like this can get. The death sentence at the heart of this movie is seen from every angle--the guy sitting in death row, the victims' angry families, the folks who work in prison or death row, the nun torn by it all, and even the victims themselves. No matter what you think of capital punishment before the opening credits, I think this movie challenges you to think things over again. Not that it's here to change your mind or anything. But it is thought-provoking. The acting is really good universally (even Jack Black in what has to be one of the funniest movies of his career), but at the center of it all, you've got two of the most powerful lead performances in recent movie history. Susan Sarandon's Sister Helen is just the right amount of tortured, nothing but heroic as a woman of conviction. Her performance is deep and quietly passionate. Sean Penn is one of those actors who I always forget is any good at all. This is the perfect type of role for him since he looks like a scumbag anyway. His thick mumble is tough at times, but he's real good here in a very challenging role, forcing you to see the human being who's almost unrecognizable, smudged by his sins and hidden beneath layers of his own hatred. No, you won't end up liking that human being, unrepentant racist/murderer that he is, but you will find it impossible not to take notice of the human being. Such powerful performances, and the dialogue between them is rich and realistic and rewarding. Where this could have ended up manipulative and sanctimonious or overly didactic, it stays deeply moving and reflective. I was touched by more than a few scenes. I wish Robbins would have shown less of the crime. He intercuts jumpy dimly lit flashes of flashbacks in scenes with characters walking or whatever, and it almost gets to be a bit much at times. But I suppose I know why theses scenes are in there.