best films: #49: DEAD MAN WALKING (1995)
You’d be hard pressed to find a more deserving showcase piece for two talented actors than Dead Man Walking. Telling the true story of Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) and her spiritual advising for Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), a convicted killer on death row, the movie follows Prejean’s struggle to decide whether or not to stick it out with the grisly, neo-Nazi Poncelet. It’s drama at its best, with Sarandon and Penn giving the best performances of their respective careers. Penn is terrifying and yet strangely human as the cold-blooded killer, and he commands most scenes he occupies with his disturbing thoughts on society. Sarandon is believably moving as her character struggles with her faith, and her friends and family question her decision to counsel the prisoner. Along with the showpieces from the two stars, it features great supporting turns from character actresses Margo Martindale and Roberta Maxwell, as Sarandon’s fellow nun friend and Penn’s shut-in mother, respectively.