1995 / Best Director

Film #547: Dead Man Walking (1995)

We now find ourselves in 1995, a year in which two films found themselves nominated for Best Director but not for Best Picture. Bearing in mind this was the year that Babe picked up a Best Picture nod you have to feel for Tim Robbins who garnered recognition for helming the grippingly emotional Dead Man Walking.

Dead Man Walking is the adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean’s non-fiction book of the same name which recounts her interactions with convicted killer Matthew Poncelet as he awaits his execution. Poncelet had been found guilty of murdering a couple of teenagers alongside a man named Carl Vitello who himself only received a life sentence. The film tells the story through Helen’s eyes as she begins to warm to Matthew despite his obvious prejudices and radical views. Helen organises several appeals for Matthew but when they fall through she decides to become his spiritual adviser and in this role tries to prepare him for the trial. However Helen’s decision affects a lot of people including the families of the teenagers that Matthew is alleged to have killed plus the black parishioners whom she cares for as they wonder why she’s helping a man who is openly racist. I felt that Dead Man Walking got increasingly gripping as the film went on with Robbins’ screenplay documenting the day of Matthew’s execution with great accuracy. Although the ending is a little weak given what has come before it I felt it was a fitting end to a film that centred on the true meaning of love and why everybody deserves some help.

Unlike the last couple of films I’ve watched for this project, I can understand exactly why Tim Robbins received a Best Director nomination for Dead Man Walking. The film wonderfully combines the scenes between Sister Helen and Matthew with other footage most notably what happened on the night of the double murder. Robbins also makes sure the camera is always following Helen’s reaction as she is the emotional core of the film and by closing in on her often he makes sure that we feel her pain. Obviously are sympathies for Helen are raised by the tremendous performance by Susan Sarandon who picked up a long overdue Oscar for her work. Sarandon establishes Helen’s personality early on and its hard to take as anything other than a saintly figure albeit one who may be looking for goodness where there is none. Sarandon perfects every facial expression and every body movement to perfectly convey her character’s feelings meaning that the audience stays with her constantly. Also nominated for his role in the film was Sean Penn who has the harder role of making the audience care for a man who has killed and raped people. I personally think it’s through Sarandon’s portrayal of Helen that we care for Matthew and Penn’s chemistry with the leading lady makes their scenes together the film’s best. Whether or not Sean Penn deserved to win Best Actor or not will be a question I’ll be able to answer with my next post but I feel his multi-layered turn as Matthew was one of the best performances not to win an Academy Award. The film also received one more nod for its original song by Bruce Springsteen which I found to be quite underwhelming however I did feel that the film’s score, by Tim’s brother David Robbins, was one of its best elements.

Although I’m not through looking at 1995 yet, there’s no doubt in my mind that Dead Man Walking deserved a place in the Best Picture category as it was certainly more gripping than family fable Babe and arguably a better all-round film than that year’s winner Braveheart. Its success can be attributed to a number of elements from the fantastic performances of Penn and Sarandon and Tim Robbins’ well-paced adapted script. But Robbins deserves most of the credit for his assured direction of what was only his second film at the time and I feel that his directorial nomination for Dead Man Walking was more than justified.

Next Time we stay in 1995 for a film that was awarded that year’s Best Actor Award but failed to garner a Best Picture nod.

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