“Figures I'd have to die to find love, thank you for loving me,” says Matthew Poncelet, some of the final words of a man facing his imminent death. Dead Man Walking is a film about the death penalty, but even more so it is a film about love. It's not romantic love, dramatized and spiced up for the big screen, it is dirty, difficult, full of tears and more real than anything one could ever fabricate. It addresses Mahatma Gandhi's oft-quoted statement about Christians not acting like Jesus by showing a Christian who truly imitates Christ's love for the, by worldy standards, despicable and unloveable. Whether the makers of Dead Man Walking intended it or not, they created one of the most spiritual and truly religious films that has come out of Hollywood in a long while, possibly ever.
Poncelet's opinion of religion is made clear from some of his first statements. Rolling his eyes at Sister Helen, he mentions the chaplain is a “very religious man.” Poncelet clearly expects Sister Helen to spend her time attempting to convert him. He tries to tick her off from the get-go, with his racist comments, statements about religion and prying questions about her sexual life, or lack thereof. Sister Helen's response is always seasoned with grace. At one point she tells Poncelet that she is “following the example of Jesus” and that “every person is worth more than their worst act.” These two statements are clear themes playing throughout the film as Sister Helen helps Poncelet with his appeal, and when it is denied, agrees to be his spiritual counselor during his last days.
At one point she admits to a fellow Sister that she's not sure she “really likes him,” which is possibly one of the greatest understatements of the film. Dead Man Walking does a spectacular job of not creating a martyr or a victim. Matthew Poncelet is not a pitiable soul. He is actually quite despicable. His words are full of racism and hatred, he is a Nazi-wannabe spouting the superiority of the Aryan race. In addition to that, he is in prison for the brutal rape and murder of two teenagers. By every logical right, Poncelet deserves what he's getting. If anyone deserved the death penalty, it would be someone like him. But he can be saved, and this is the theme of the film, this is the theme of Sister Helen's care. Not saved like turned into a Bible-thumping Baptist spouting scripture and singing gospel hymns as the needle goes in, but saved like redeemed, acknowledging his sin and accepting the forgiveness and love that readily awaits.
Charles Colson put it well in his review of the film, saying “it's through Sister Helen's eyes we are finally able to perceive Poncelet as something other than a monster, and that's what makes Dead Man Walking a profoundly Christian movie. Sister Helen insists on loving the loathsome Poncelet out of her love for Christ.” This is so true. We don't hate Poncelet, because Sister Helen doesn't hate him, and through her love, care and dedication for him we see that Jesus doesn't hate Poncelet either. Dead Man Walking shows Poncelet to still be a human being, with every capability of being saved and redeemed. The movie displays repentance and the unconditional love of Christ more clearly than probably any other film made by a non-religious filmmaker.
True Christianity is about unconditional love, and that is what Sister Helen portrays. The Bible and Christianity teach that Jesus changed the world with His radical love, that Jesus' love gives people worth, and that is what is shown by Sister Helen. She loves someone who is utterly unloveable, and through that she gives a dead man worth. Popular film commentator, Roger Ebert, said, “Sister Helen is one of the few truly spiritual characters I have seen in the movies. Movies about "religion" are often only that - movies about secular organizations that deal in spirituality. It is so rare to find a movie character who truly does try to live according to the teachings of Jesus (or anyone else, for that matter) that it's a little disorienting: This character will behave according to what she thinks is right, not according to the needs of a plot, the requirements of a formula, or the pieties of those for whom religion, good grooming, polite manners and prosperity are all more or less the same thing.” The fact that Dead Man Walking is based on a true story makes it even more powerful. This is not just a commentary on the death penalty or a portrayal of how Christianity should be, it tells the story of what Christianity really is, what it truly looks like for someone to live and love like Jesus.
The cinematography in Dead Man Walking is stark and truthful. During the final scene of Poncelet's life the cutting and camera shots are spectacular. As the vials slowly empty their deadly fluids into Poncelet's veins the film flashes back to the night when Poncelet and the other man rape and brutally murder the teenagers. There is no forgetting what he has done. It is horrible, reprehensible, despicable, unforgivable by any human standards. But in the midst of this knowledge of Poncelet's evil actions, Sister Helen whispers that she loves him, hand stretched towards him as she offers silent prayers to Heaven. This is the message of Dead Man Walking, that no matter what a person has done, there is grace and forgiveness for all. Dead Man Walking is one of the most spiritual and religious stories to ever come out of a non-religious film, it is about true love, forgiveness, grace, repentance and redemption, because “every person is worth more than their worst act.”