Dead Man Walking (film)

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

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 1993 non-fiction book of the same name.

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 corresponding with him.

The film was a critical and commercial success; it grossed $83 million on a budget of $11 million and received praise for the performances of Penn and Sarandon, as well as Robbins' direction. Sarandon's performance won her the Academy Award for Best Actress, while Robbins, Penn and Bruce Springsteen were nominated for Best Director, Best Actor and Best Original Song, respectively, for the single "Dead Man Walkin'".


Matthew Poncelet, sentenced to death for the murder of a teenage couple, has been on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary for six years. His accomplice, Carl Vitello, was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. As his scheduled execution date approaches, Poncelet asks Sister Helen Prejean, with whom he has corresponded, to help him with a final appeal.

Sister Helen decides to visit Poncelet, who is arrogant, sexist and racist, and does not even pretend to feel remorse. He protests his innocence and insists 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 victims' families do not understand Sister Helen's efforts to help Poncelet and claim that she is "taking his side". They desire "absolute justice" i.e. his life for those of their children.

Sister Helen's application for commutation is refused. 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 had killed the boy and raped the girl, before Vitello killed her. As he is prepared for execution, he appeals to the boy's father for forgiveness and tells the girl's parents that he hopes his death brings them peace.

Poncelet is executed by lethal injection and given a proper burial. The murdered boy's father attends the funeral ceremony; although he is still filled with hate, he soon begins to pray with Sister Helen.




Critical response[edit]

Dead Man Walking was well received by critics. Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 95% positive rating based on reviews from 60 critics, with an average rating of 8.24/10. The site's consensus states: "A powerful, thought-provoking film that covers different angles of its topic without resorting to preaching, Dead Man Walking will cause the viewer to reflect regardless of their political viewpoint."[2] Metacritic gives it a rating of 80/100 based on reviews from 26 critics, indicating "Generally favorable reviews."[3]

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."[4] 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."[5] 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."[6]


Association Category Recipient Result
20/20 Awards Best Picture Nominated
Best Actor Sean Penn Nominated
Best Actress Susan Sarandon Won
Best Song "Dead Man Walkin'" – Bruce Springsteen Nominated
Academy Awards Best Director Tim Robbins Nominated
Best Actor Sean Penn Nominated
Best Actress Susan Sarandon Won
Best Original Song "Dead Man Walkin'" – Bruce Springsteen Nominated
Australian Film Institute Awards Best Foreign Film Jon Kilik, Tim Robbins and Rudd Simmons Nominated
Awards Circuit Community Awards Best Actor in a Leading Role Sean Penn Nominated
Best Actress in a Leading Role Susan Sarandon Nominated
Berlin International Film Festival[7] Golden Bear Tim Robbins Nominated
Prize of the Ecumenical Jury Won
Prize of the Guild of German Art House Cinemas Won
Reader Jury of the "Berliner Morgenpost" Won
Best Actor Sean Penn Won
Blockbuster Entertainment Awards Favorite Actress – Drama Susan Sarandon Nominated
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards Best Actor Sean Penn Nominated
Chlotrudis Awards Best Movie Won
Best Actor Sean Penn Won
Best Actress Susan Sarandon Won
David di Donatello Awards Best Foreign Actress Won
Golden Globe Awards Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama Sean Penn Nominated
Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama Susan Sarandon Nominated
Best Screenplay – Motion Picture Tim Robbins Nominated
Heartland International Film Festival Studio Crystal Heart Award Won
Humanitas Prize Awards Feature Film Tim Robbins Won
Independent Spirit Awards Best Male Lead Sean Penn Nominated
Best Supporting Female Celia Weston Nominated
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards Best Actress Susan Sarandon Won
Leggio d'Oro Best Female Performance Rossella Izzo (for dubbing Susan Sarandon) Won
Love is Folly International Film Festival Golden Aphrodite Tim Robbins Won
Movieguide Awards Most Inspiring Movies Won
MTV Movie Awards Best Female Performance Susan Sarandon Nominated
National Society of Film Critics Awards Best Actor Sean Penn Runner-up
Nikkan Sports Film Awards Best Foreign Film Won
Online Film & Television Association Awards Best Motion Picture Won
Palm Springs International Film Festival Best Director Tim Robbins Won
Political Film Society Awards Exposé Won
Human Rights Nominated
Sant Jordi Awards Best Foreign Actor Sean Penn Nominated
Best Foreign Actress Susan Sarandon Nominated
Screen Actors Guild Awards Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role Sean Penn Nominated
Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role Susan Sarandon Won
Turkish Film Critics Association Awards Best Foreign Film 18th Place
USC Scripter Awards USC Scripter Award Tim Robbins (screenwriter); Helen Prejean (author) Nominated

Tim Robbins dedicated the movie to his paternal grandfather, Lee Robbins, and maternal grandmother, Thelma Bledsoe, in gratitude for his college tuition.[8]

The real-life 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[edit]

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.[9]

Other versions[edit]

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 encouraged additional academic study on the death penalty.[10]


  1. ^ "Dead Man Walking (1995)". AFI Catalog of Feature Films.
  2. ^ "Dead Man Walking (1995)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved April 27, 2020.
  3. ^ "Dead Man Walking Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Retrieved February 15, 2017.
  4. ^ Hinson, Hal (January 12, 1996). "A Tale of Giving the Devil His Due". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 11, 2010.
  5. ^ Turan, Kenneth (December 29, 1995). "Movie Review: Dead Man Walking – Prayers for the Victim, Victimizer 'Dead Man Walking,' Tim Robbins' adaptation of Sister Helen". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on December 17, 2007. Retrieved July 11, 2010.
  6. ^ Ebert, Roger (January 12, 1996). "Dead Man Walking". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on September 28, 2012. Retrieved July 11, 2010.
  7. ^ "Prizes & Honours 1996". Berlinale. Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin. Archived from the original on August 30, 2019. Retrieved January 1, 2012.
  8. ^ "Roger Ebert's Movie Answer Man (03/17/1996)". Retrieved July 1, 2019.
  9. ^ "Dead Man Walking (1995)". The Numbers. Nash Information Services, LLC. Retrieved February 15, 2017.
  10. ^ 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.

External links[edit]