5 Plot Point Breakdown: Dead Man Walking (1995)

By Anthony Faust · March 20, 2016

Screenplay Genre: Drama

Movie Time: 122 minutes


Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), a nun who spends her days helping poor children, receives a letter from convicted felon Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), asking for help with his legal troubles. She meets him at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where he is serving a death sentence. (00:03:52)

2. LOCK IN (End of Act One)

After the pardon board denies him clemency, and facing only one week to live, Matthew asks Sister Helen to be his spiritual adviser. She agrees. Hilton Barber, a lawyer who made a strong, but unsuccessful argument to spare Matthew’s life to the pardon board, reminds Sister Helen of the implications of her commitment; she will need to spend several hours a day with Matthew leading up to his execution, and then, on the day the sentence is carried out, she will need to spend all day with him. (00:34:29)


Sister Helen, exhausted from the plodding drudgery of fighting the legal system, overwhelmed by the censure of the families of both of Matthew’s victims (who are dismayed that she has chosen to counsel Matthew), and frustrated by Matthew’s political tirades and bigoted remarks to television and newspaper reporters, collapses. (01:08:14)

4. MAIN CULMINATION (End of Act Two)

Matthew’s last chance for a stay of execution is denied by the federal appeals court. All of Sister Helen and Hilton’s efforts to extend Matthew’s life have failed. The time on the clock reads 10:33 p.m. In one hour, Matthew Poncelet will be a dead man walking. (01:29:01)


Matthew confesses to Sister Helen; he killed Walter Delacroix. When Sister Helen, encouraged by Matthew’s admission of guilt, presses him about the circumstances of Hope Percy’s death, he responds firmly. He raped her, Matthew acknowledges, but he did not kill her. After a few tears fall down her face, Sister Helen tells Matthew two things. The first one he knows: Matthew did a terrible thing the night Walter Delacroix and Hope Percy were butchered and left to rot in a dark, Louisiana backwoods forest.

The second thing Sister Helen tells him is a revelation. By telling the truth, minutes before his mouth will be sealed forever, Matthew has given himself a sense of dignity, and no one, neither the unrelenting, steely prison guards who monitor his every move, nor the witnesses who watch as the lethal injection kills his shivering, frightened body, can ever take that away from him. (01:35:32)

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