Dead Man Walking (film)

Dead Man Walking is a 1995 American crime drama film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, and co-produced and directed by Tim Robbins, who adapted the screenplay from the non-fiction book of the same name.

Dead Man Walking
Theatrical release poster
Directed byTim Robbins
Produced byJon Kilik
Tim Robbins
Rudd Simmon
Screenplay byTim Robbins
Based onDead Man Walking
by Sister Helen Prejean C.S.J.
Music byDavid Robbins
CinematographyRoger A. Deakins
Edited byLisa Zeno Churgin
Distributed byGramercy Pictures
Release date
  • December 29, 1995 (1995-12-29)
Running time
122 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$11 million
Box office$83 million

Sister Helen Prejean (Sarandon) establishes a special relationship with Matthew Poncelet (Penn), a character based on convicted murderers Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie. He is a prisoner on death row in Louisiana, and she visits him as his spiritual adviser after having corresponded with him.


Matthew Poncelet has been in prison for six years, awaiting execution after being convicted and 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 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 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 his 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 tearfully 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 funeral ceremony still filled with hate, but shortly after begins to pray with Sister Helen.




Critical response

The film was well received by critics. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 95% positive rating based on reviews from 59 critics, with an average rating of 8.2/10[1] Metacritic gives it a rating of 80/100 based on reviews from 26 critics, indicating "Generally favorable reviews."[2]

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."[3] 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."[4] 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."[5]


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 Original 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.[6]

Robbins dedicated the movie to his paternal grandparents, Lee Robbins and Thelma Bledsoe, in gratitude for his college tuition.[7]

The real-life Sister Helen Prejean can be seen briefly in the candlelight vigil scene outside the prison protesting the death penalty with the rest of the cast.

Box office

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.[8]

Other versions

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.[9]


  1. "Dead Man Walking (1995)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved March 29, 2016.
  2. "Dead Man Walking Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved February 15, 2017.
  3. Hinson, Hal (January 12, 1996). "A Tale of Giving the Devil His Due". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 11, 2010.
  4. Turan, Kenneth (December 29, 1995). "Movie Review: Dead Man Walking – Prayers for the Victim, Victimizer 'Dead Man Walking,' Tim Robbins' adaptation of Sister Helen". The Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on December 17, 2007. Retrieved July 11, 2010.
  5. Ebert, Roger (January 12, 1996). "Dead Man Walking". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved July 11, 2010.
  6. "Prizes & Honours 1996". Berlinale. Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin. Retrieved January 1, 2012.
  7. "Roger Ebert's Movie Answer Man (03/17/1996)". Retrieved July 1, 2019.
  8. "Dead Man Walking (1995)". The Numbers. Nash Information Services, LLC. Retrieved February 15, 2017.
  9. Koslovsky-Golan, Yvonne. The Death Penalty in American Cinema: Criminality and Retribution in Hollywood Film. I.B.Tauris, April 4, 2014. ISBN 0857734520, 9780857734525. p. 117.

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