By John H. Foote

When he comes into view there is unmistakable swagger in his walk, despite being in chains, an arrogance, a huge chip on his shoulder, hair perfectly teased into a pompadour, his eyes blaze with seething anger. It is as though he challenges anyone he encounters, as though he has something to prove. Yet once seated, he is surprisingly still, aside from the constant string of cigarettes, like an inactive volcano raging below the surface, preparing for a devastating explosion. He has raped a young girl, killed her young boyfriend before killing her, yet he denies his part. He did not act alone, but his partner in crime cut a deal, selling him out to stay alive. When sentenced to death, having exhausted every avenue for appeal, he asks a middle-aged nun to be his spiritual advisor leading up to the execution. We can sense he wishes to confess, but his ego will not yet allow that.

Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon.

Sean Penn was both terrifying yet vulnerable as Matt Poncelot, a dirt-poor southern man sitting on death row, terrified to die but more frightened of showing that fear to anyone.  His front is a brooding arrogance, which masks that of a terrified child, afraid of the dark. Those eyes are hooded like a cobra, there is no question he is dangerous, but as he approaches death, he seeks to find a shred of his own humanity to leave behind, even if the sister is the only witness to it. His stillness is alarming because we understand the storm roiling within, gaining power, threatening to explode.

In order to find peace, she tells him he must first confess to his crimes, which include the murder of a young teenaged boy and the rape of the boy’s girlfriend, both crimes he denies. Yet there is not much conviction in his pleas of innocence, and little doubt he did exactly what he is convicted of doing.

As the good sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) works with him, she slowly brings down his guard, challenging his sexual advances, making him feel foolish for even suggesting such things with death breathing down upon him. They forge a trust and slowly Matthew opens up to her, revealing more of himself as the day of execution approaches.

Penn is fearless, but that is no surprise because he always has been, but here especially so because of the character he portrays with such dark authenticity. Shortly before his execution he confesses his crimes to Prejean, weeping as he does so, filled with self-loathing for not having the courage to say no to his bullying friend. The terror he feels as he walks the walk to the execution chamber is devastating, and when they strap him down and raise the table, the Christ reference is unmistakable. Looking into the sister’s eyes as the deadly cocktail flows into his veins, he sees and perhaps feels for the first time, genuine love for another human being. It is as though in dying, Matthew learned what living was all about.

His final meeting with his mother and brothers is a devastating sequence, with anguish and grief hanging in the air. Trying to be the father figure of the family for the absent father, he talks about being good men, strong as his voice quavers with pain. A young Jack Black portrays his younger brother, before he became Jack Black, and he is very good.

How does Penn, known to be a surly character himself, manage to find and bring to this reprehensible man a vulnerability that causes us to feel for him? It is actor’s genius, no question.

Actor Tim Robbins directed and wrote the screenplay, adapting the book written by Sister Helen Prejean about her experience with Matthew Poncelot. Susan Sarandon won the Academy Award for Best Actress, while Penn and Robbins settled for nominations. A performance that is startling in its economy, Penn creates a complicated, uneducated men, for whom violence was a way of life. His evolution from killer to a man seeking forgiveness and finding grace, remains among the finest achievements of the nineties, and beyond, of all time.

No question in my mind, Penn should have won an Academy Award as Best Actor. Period.

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