In his second turn as a director, Tim Robbins, along with longtime partner Susan Sarandon, a bunch cof his extended family, and tons of other notable names all got together to create this: a film adaptation based on a work by Sister Helen Prejean, a nun who has spent time counseling deathrow inmates. The film soimplifies the story and focuses on Helen as she coems to know and try to help Matthew Poncelet a composite of 2-3 real life figues. Matthew (in the film) is on death row for kidnapping, then brutally raping and murdering a boy and girl out near some lover's lane somewhere along with a friend of his.
The film follows Sister Helen as she tries to help Matthew get an appeal or a lesser sentence, feeling that, though he may be guilty, he isn't deserving of the death penalty. Yes, the film does ultimately have a bias concerning capital punishment, but it also presents mutltiple and well developed viewpoints of the issue, and makes a good case for both. It does have it's bias, but it is also more subtle than I expected it to be. I figured it would be very blunt and bludgeon the audience of the head with it's message a la The Life of David Gale (which now that I think about it may not be quiote as good as I originally thought).
Given the well know npolitical views and activism of Penn, Robbins, and Sarandon, I was surprised with how the film ultimately treated the issues at hand, and am very thankful for how itr all ended up. Yes, it gets a bit heavy handed here and there, but it's hard to fault it too much since it's all done so well. The film doesn't make Matthew totally symapthetic, but it does humanize him, and the concluding scenes are very moving.
I had a personal moment of joy when I realized that the song playing during the big climax as Matthew is being led to the execution room was a version of a song I sang with my choir back in high schhol. I believe it's a Swedish funeral march, but I can't remember.
Okay, that little diversion aside, this is a very moving, thought provoking, and sensible cinematic treatment of a touchy subject. It isn't completely cliche free, but it is far more fresh than I was figuring it might be, and the performances are just wonderful. Sarandon won an Oscar, and Penn was nominated, and both are incredible. They bring a lot of depth to their roles, and play them very realistically. To support them are people such as R. Lee Ermey, Robert Prosky, Raymond J. Barry, and even Jack Black. All of them and the rest do a fine job fleshing out their various characters and giving life to people who, for various reasons, have strong opinions on capital punishment, and it's hard to really take sides because they all make you feel for them.
I'm torn on the rating, so let's be kind and give it somewhere between a 4 and 4 1/2. This is a very stirring and emotional drama that raises good questions, answers some, but leaves it up to the viewer to really decide what it should be. Given the material, that's all I could ask for, because this is an issue where it's best to leave it open (ultimately) because it's such a slippery slope. You should give this a watch.