The meaning of death

While John Schlesinger's "An Eye for an Eye" presents Hollywood's same old good vs. evil universe, Tim Robbins' "Dead Man Walking" triumphs by rejecting easy moral conclusions.

By Gary Kamiya

Published January 28, 1996 3:24PM (EST)

The most deeply held beliefs cannot be changed by argument. They live in an inward and secret place, a dark sanctuary where the desires and fears, prejudices and reasonings of a lifetime stand like silent totems.

And no beliefs are more deeply held than those concerning vengeance for the taking of human life. From the implacable Biblical injunction "an eye for an eye" to Camus' impassioned plea that men be "neither victims nor executioners," from the tragedies of Aeschylus to the nightmare of unleashed revenge in Jacobean drama, from the self-crucifying moral dialectic of Dostoevsky to the hunt 'em down and kill 'em ethos of a thousand Hollywood films, blood atonement has haunted the human imagination.

The ultimate retribution obsesses us because it exists beyond the small circle of light cast by everyday morality. There are no signposts in this realm -- or, if there are, they cancel each other out. "An eye for an eye"? "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord."

The instinct to kill the killer of one's child is as clean as the lion's instinct to hunt -- yet if we live under the rules of civilization on Monday, shall we suspend those rules when the unthinkable happens on Tuesday? We are taught that human life is sacred: under what conditions, if any, should it cease to be regarded as such? What place does the jungle have in our moral mathematics?

Two new films, Tim Robbins' "Dead Man Walking" and John Schlesinger's "An Eye for an Eye," explore this issue from different directions. Neither film will probably change the minds of those who are certain that they possess the truth. What they reveal -- one through its artistic success, one through its failure -- is that such moral certainty does not, and should not, come easily. In these days in which every two-bit politician sets himself up as an apostle of virtue, this is a useful lesson.

John Schlesinger's "An Eye for an Eye" is too slight and flawed a film to bear much discussion. Trying to make hay off the O.J. Simpson debacle, it offers a stale variant on the venerable what-to-do-when-the-law-fails plot. The twist here is that the aggrieved party (her daughter's killer gets off on a ludicrous technicality involving, of course, DNA testing) is a yuppie housewife. Even this formulaic story line could have been potentially interesting, but Schlesinger makes things much too easy for himself. By presenting the killer as a monster whose extinction is obviously justified (after being freed, he kills again and threatens the mother's surviving daughter), the director avoids having to deal with more profound issues -- pathological obsession, the moral questions of taking the law into one's own hands. Schlesinger's vision is about as deep as a New York Daily News headline: his wish-fulfilling tale appeals to our shallowest O.J.-irritated emotions, and so says nothing.

By contrast, "Dead Man Walking," Tim Robbins' remarkable film about convicted murderer Matthew Poncelet and the nun who comes into his life as it nears its state-sanctioned end, possesses that rarest of qualities: moral humility. Robbins, like Sister Helen Prejean, on whose autobiographical book the film is based, clearly opposes the death penalty, but there is a curious, and moving, agnostic quality to his opposition. There are no grand, Clarence Darrow-like perorations about how the state has no right to play God. Ideology, intellectual abstractions, arguments for or against the death penalty, matter less here than a profoundly communicated sense of something ordinary, indefinable, and of inestimable value -- life itself, even though it is the life of a miserable, hate-filled man who has destroyed two families.

The images that linger in the mind are ephemeral, banal: Poncelet's little brother pacing back and forth in the visiting room at the family's last visit, making his shoes squeak as bored young children do, as his mother and his brothers sit in a now-what-do-we-say silence that speaks of great and ordinary love. The tough mask of Poncelet's face, in perhaps the most revelatory moment of a performance of great pathos by Sean Penn, cracking just for an instant as his mother breaks down. Sister Prejean, lying dazed on a bed, saying in confusion, "Oh, it's so bizarre, a man's going to be killed tomorrow in front of me." It is her confusion, not her conviction, that touches the heart, just as it is Robbins' moral uncertainty that gives his film its moral credibility.

Throughout, Robbins refuses to load the dice. He refuses to portray the grieving, bitter parents of the victims as caricatures: their desire for revenge, or closure, is never cheapened. He scrupulously balances the scene in which Poncelet is executed with horrifying flashbacks to the murder: we are never allowed to forget what Poncelet did. Film, with its unrivalled capacity to keep the past ghoulishly alive, is a superb instrument for moral exploration: like Krzysztof Kieslowski's "A Short Film About Killing," which portrays a murder and an execution with the same cold-blooded detachment, "Dead Man Walking" is a kind of ethical laboratory. Those who oppose capital punishment are forced to watch the crimes, while those who support it are forced to look into the killer's soul.

Indeed, more than anything else, this is a film about watching. Its central image is the open, courageous, pained face of Sister Prejean (played wonderfully by Susan Sarandon), whose vocation has placed her outside the world -- and given her the moral courage to face it unflinchingly.

"I think killing's wrong, whether I do it or the state does it," Poncelet says as, the fatal IV in his arm, he is tilted upright on a gurney so that he may speak his last words to the observers. In one sense, this is clearly the film's moral; but it is not its only, or perhaps even its ultimate, one. For in the end, this is a story about redemption -- a secularized version of Christ's passion. In its piercing spiritual simplicity, "Dead Man Walking" recalls Dickens, the great artist of spiritual regeneration (who would probably be regarded by some of today's self-assured moralists as the original bleeding heart).

Yet Robbins avoids playing the sentimental card. The issue of whether or not the state has the right to kill Poncelet remains separate from the issue of his salvation: it is left to the viewer to decide whether the two things should be connected. And this reticence speaks most powerfully of all. In this realm, those who are certain they have the answer are revealed to be those who are lost in darkness.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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