‘Dead Man Walking’, directed by Tim Robbins, is a film about a man called Matthew Poncelot. Matthew is living in Death Row – A Dead Man Walking – as these prisoners are known, because he has killed two people in a forest. Sister Helen Prejean is requested by Matthew to be with him when he dies. This essay will explore the ways in which Tim Robbins represents this story using different techniques. There are a lot of close up shots in this film. During one of the flashbacks, we get a close up shot of the dead people. More Close up shots are shown throughout the film.
For example, during the film there are numerous close up shots of the clock with the effect that time left is ticking away. Early on in the film there is a grid that separates Matthew and Helen but the grid disappears as the film progresses to show the purpose that they are becoming closer. The effect of this is that now they are closer together Matthew will share more information about the murder. Towards the end of the film a close up on the bars of the prison cells give the effect of permanent division. There is a close up shot of the Prison Chaplin’s mouth, which is used of the purpose of condemning Matthew.
This focused on his obvious feelings about Matthew and what he did. An insert shot shows Matthew’s face on the TV screen in the court. Other types of shots in this film are, a medium long Shot when Sister Helen meets Walter’s father outside of the appeal court, this focuses on the emotional conversation and the effect that Helen’s befriending of Matthew is having on the family. The shots that affected me most are: Last visit of Matthew’s family; this made me feel sad for the family. The scene in the prison cell when he admits to murder; I didn’t think that the law was fair towards Matthew by giving him all the blame.
His death; I think that Matthew got what he deserved. Early on in the film there is an animated discussion about Matthew’s prejudice against coloured people. There is humour in the film, which helps to balance the sadness for example when Helen discusses Matthew’s funeral when sitting with her friend in her house. They discuss how when Matthew is killed that he will be lying right next to another Nun, they start laughing and feeling sorry for that Nun. Helen’s mother sounded and looked very much like Hope’s mother.
This could have been intentional to show the similarities between mothers and how they feel about their children – all mothers feel the same. Their accents also indicated respectability. Helen’s mother seams more respectable that Matthew’s mother because her voice was more redefined. Matthew’s dialect was thicker; more pronounced which indicated he was from a lower class and less intelligent. The dialogue used within Helen’s dealings with the Prison Chaplin was difficult. He wanted her to get an admission from Matthew; he was scathing and doubtful of her ability to cope.
There were difficult conversations between Helen and the families of the dead people who felt she had a conflict of interest. During the film Helen prayed to God to help her to stay strong and keep her faith. Most often than not sounds occur naturally within the story, keys rattling in the prison for example. This is known as diegetic sound. However, sometimes the sound is non – diegetic, for example when Helen “hears” the jumbled voices of the bereaved parents. Sister Helen hears the murdered people crying at numerous points in the film; I think they are when she is talking with Matthew.
The purpose of this was, I think, to make the audience and Helen remember why he is in prison. This sound effect gave me the feeling of sorrow not only for the parents but also for Matthew. In the courtroom when the judgement was given for Matthew’s death there was a lot of murmuring. This was to show that even some of the public slightly disagreed with the death of Matthew. There were squeaky trainers, which belonged to his youngest brother that he wore during the last visit with Matthew, which gave the effect that there is nothing left to say. When Matthew was having a lie detector test there was typing in the background.
The effect of this was to show that Matthew’s case was just another case on another day in the judge’s book. In the death chamber the clicking of the machine as it pumped the drugs into Matthew’s body to end his life. When the machine clicked for each needle, each individual click created more tension and drama and is one step closer to the end of his life. The music in ‘Dead Man Walking’ is Cajun Indian music. Families are the focus of life in the Cajun Indian tribes. It is symbolic that their music is chosen to provide the dramatic sound effects for a film where a family and family life is completely destroyed by the murders.
The music used at the beginning of the film is lighter and more joyful. As the film progresses the music becomes more soulful and dark and almost used as a chanting you would expect to hear as one of the family dies. The music becomes darker and more dramatic, with drum rolls, while the flashbacks are happening. This helps to show that each time we see the flashback we are learning more about the murders and how they have been done. The music emphasises the drama of each scene. Early sequences show Helen being filmed, as she becomes a nun.
This is on a handheld camera; the intention is to make this look amateur the kind of film a family would make. Another example of this is when Matthew and friend are in the woods killing the two people, Hope and Walter. This is shown in black and white; stark, which gives the feeling of a cold, brutal murder. A lot of use is made of still photographs. The use of black and white and still photos again emphasising the starkness of what had happened, a snap shot of what had already taken place and the fact that it could not be changed, underlining reasons for events.
The lighting in the film was expressive because Matthew was talking about what him and his friend were doing in the woods that night Hope and Walter were killed. In the opening sequences of the film, when in the neighbourhood, the lighting in usually bright but when in the prison the lighting was dark, maybe representing the fact that they are not familiar with each other yet but also showing darkness as Helen is in a place of evil. In the prison the light is always confined through dark windows. Over time the light in their initial conversations becomes brighter because they are getting closer.
I thought the lighting in the film really gave the film the grave effect. Helen and Matthew are lit differently in their initial discussions, this is because Helen is trying to make Matthew look on the bright side of things and to pull him off the subject of him dying. Matthew is bragging about Hitler and himself but using some self-pity later in the film. In the final scenes the lighting is harsh because the death chamber is plain but with very bright lights showing Matthew as in a spotlight, to show no escape from his fate.
In the glass of the death chamber you can see the reflection of Matthew, this shows that he watching his life end. The living room where Helen watches TV is not what I expected to see. The stereotype for a nun is a convent, which would be bare and unwelcoming. The effect of this is to show Helen is aware of what happens in real life. She is not locked away from the real world. The church we see Helen worship in is more like a gospel church than the Catholic Church I would have expected. This does not fit the stereotype.
Hope House is in the centre of the black neighbourhood. This does not seem like a poor neighbourhood. This does not fit the stereotype. The lawyer’s office is busy and bustling – this is what I would have imagined. This fits the stereotype, as does the prison cell, which is stark and bare. Early on in the film, the Prison Chaplin comments that Helen’s lack of habit to be unusual. He comments also that a lack of costume is a lack of respect. This gives the effect that he thinks he is better than the prisoners because of what he wears. Clothes divide people into class.
Helen’s mother’s clothes are good quality to give the further impression of her respectable status. Matthew’s family’s clothes are poor. The prison guards uniforms are black – this fitted what we know lies in wait for Matthew. Matthew feels uneasy without his boots. Footwear is important to those people coming from a poor background. This is because normally poor people can’t afford shoes so to have some shows that Matthew is higher class. All of the men in authority are wearing grey suits. This represents the grey facelessness of authority.
Symbols are material objects used to represent something invisible such as an idea. This whole film is symbolic. Helen’s cross was symbolic. She sets of the alarm the first time she goes into the prison. This indicates the cross will be dangerous. The cross is dangerous because it is showing us that religion and beliefs are powerful. At his death Matthew was strapped down then raised up to face his accusers. He was almost in the shape of a cross. He apologised for his crime and for the pain he caused them. His death would ease that pain – a bit like Jesus Christ dying on the cross to save others.
The clock was symbolic of what time there was left. The focus on the needles in the death chamber symbolised how life could be taken away quickly and deliberately. In the film, I think that Tim Robbins has represented Sister Helen Prejean as a person who is against capital punishment and this could be why she decided to befriend Matthew to try and help him because she thinks it is wrong that he should die. I think that Tim Robbins represents Helen as uncritical to a certain extent because in certain parts of the film Helen questions her faith.
When Helen goes to see Hope’s parents she has to defend the fact that she is visiting Matthew when they think that she shouldn’t. I thought that this film was a powerful drama because it portrayed fear, crime, punishment, death, revenge and redemption. But it also portrayed love and the unlikely bond between Helen and Matthew. I thought that the film was about capital punishment but the film balanced out the feelings of sorrow for Matthew and by showing the bad things he did. The decision of whether it was right that he died for the crime he committed is a personal one. The film lets the audience make up their own mind.