Thursday, March 15, 2012

Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking

I guess we're all quite familiar with the so-called "ovedue" wins. They usually happen when a performer or a filmmaker had already received several nomination without winning a single award. Therefore sentiment really works in that particular person's favor and it's no wonder why some feel quite bitter when the win takes places.  It happened most notably to Martin Scorsese, Shirley MacLaine and Kate Winslet. They are people whose worthiness of an Oscar is undeniable and yet many disagree with their wins. Susan Sarandon's overdue win for Dead Man Walking, however, seems to be a win that is also popular because of the popularity of her performance. People do love her. Susan Sarandon was, I think, a lock for the Academy Award though I don't think she won by a landslide. All the other ladies were pretty much threatening her.  

About Dead Man Walking, let me just emphasise how thought-provoking that movie is. Although it has its flaws, I admired its passion and the fact that it's really up to the viewer to decide what they think about capital punishment. Naturally, Robbins makes his opinion clear (along with Sister Helen) but I don't think that he's as obvious as some might accuse him. That being said, the performances really elevate the film. Sean Penn is truly great in his limited screentime, using all the opportunities, he's only shaky a few times otherwise I think he was worthy of an Oscar win. I must also undeline the unfairly ignored supporting cast, especially the works of Raymond J. Barry and Celia Weston as parents losing their children (though R. Lee Ermey who plays Weston's husband is also great). It's also nice to see Margo Martindale, her performances supporting Sarandon are always so great (though Lorenzo's Oil remains my favorite).

And here we get to Susan Sarandon, fantastic, intelligent actress who constantly gifts us with wonderful subtle performances. She had her prime in the 90s so it was only fitting that she won back then. What I love the most about her is that the way she's able to keep control over her character and inject much of her personality into them while still keeping on acting. Her dedication and passion as an actress and an activist shine through  every material brilliantly. I just keep being amazed by the wide variety of characters she plays: once a rebelling waitress trying to break out of her circumstances, then a dedicated mother who's desperate to save her child's life and eventually, the anti-death penalty activist nun, Sister Helen Prejean. 

Susan obviously approached this real-life character with gallons of respect and grace, her admiration really comes off: she portrays Sister Helen as really noble, wonderful woman who has her own doubts about herself and yet she has her faith as a firm base. Susan wonderfully displayed the sister's integrity. She's far from the concept of nuns in movies: she's neither the strict, conservative Mother Superior from Sister Act (who secretly has a heart of gold) or the singing nun shown in sixties' sugary musicals. In fact, Sister Helen seems nothing like a nun, it's really her strong faith and grace that shows how dedicated she is to the people and God. She has the pure faith of Jennifer Jones St. Bernadette, but Sister Helen is much less naive and more realistic. Susan excellently displayed the fear and doubt on her journey with a man sentenced to death. 

Susan doesn't have the loud, over-the-top moments that some of her fellow nominees had though this is a typical subtle baity role: she has those whispered Oscar clip lines and everything but it still feels really decent and honest. Susan is not begging for laurels in her performance. She mostly uses her face and eyes to express the emotions required from the movie. She has a damn difficult job considering the lots of close-ups. As a result, we get incredibly close to Sister Helen and it's easier for us to identify with her problems.

It was very important for Susan to properly show the inexperience of Sister Helen. That's what makes her meetings with Sean Penn's character, Matthew so intense and haunting. The two of them worked so wonderfully together, not trying to outact each other (though I saw the efforts on Sean Penn's part to be the best, it didn't work, I liked Susan more). Susan with her subtlety and grace is an excellent contrast to Sean Penn's more raging and angry work. Matthew is full of anger and hate and then there's Sister Helen with her calm behaviour, her tolerance and acceptance of Matt. Susan gets something really straight: Sister Helen is not trying to prove that Matthew is innocent and is not attempting to help him get away from taking responsibility for his actions. In fact, she's aware what a terrible thing he has done and tries to make him reveal the truth to her but more importantly, to himself and God. 

Susan had the really difficult task of serving as a moral compass for the viewer: it's up to her to make this film as objective and unbiased as it can be. She succeeds of course, mostly thanks to her previously praised intelligence and dedication. She doesn't overemote or moralise too much. She shows nothing more than Sister Helen's reaction. In a way, Matthew becomes an accessory to the development of Sister Helen (very much like in the case of Elisabeth Shue and Leaving Las Vegas).

Susan is especially strong and effective when we see her listening to the stories of the parents whose children were brutally murdered. We can mostly see her reacting, she's only playing with her face and is wondefully expressive. She shows the conflicts going on inside Sister Helen. She indeed gets terrified by what Matthew has done and yet never even considers giving up on him. Susan excellently displays this integrity and bravery of Sister Helen and also kind of a stubbornness.

The execution of Matthew is terrifying not exclusively because of Sean Penn's acting, but because of Susan's quiet reactions. Her Oscar clip when she says she'll be there with him when it happens, is just excellent, it's everything a scene should be: quietly emotional and effective, hitting you right in your guts. Susan's face is just so haunting when we see her behind the glass reassuring Matthew of her love. Unforgettable moment with honesty rarely displayed on the big screen.

In the end, I can conclude that Susan Sarandon gives a fantastic performance as Helen Prejean. She hits all the right notes, she displays dignity, grace and faith like nobody else. Her subtle, emotional work stays with you long after movie and is actually the most important reason to see the film. Although this part may not have been too difficult to play for an actress of Susan's calibre, it's still outstanding, brave and gutwrenching work given by a wonderful actress. 
What do you think?

I know (to quote Melissa McCarthy from Bridesmaids) it's coming out of me like lava but I have some free time now and I want to enjoy it. :) Meryl comes tomorrow. :) Maybe even Emma. :) 


Louis Morgan said...

I'm a little surprised actually she only got a 4.5. I love her performance here that is just about perfect for me. I also like the film which really is frankly far more even handed then most films like this.

Anonymous said...

I must admit that I liked her better than I thought. I didn't like the movie very much, but Susan and Sean were great. I still think Elisabeth Shue should have won, and I'm going against the consensus by voting for Sean Penn over Nicolas Cage.


dinasztie said...

Louis: 4,5 seemed to be the right rating for me just like in the case of Stone.

Fritz said...

Great review and fantastic performance! I think the movie is one of the best I have ever seen!

BTW, you're really fast! :-)

dinasztie said...

Fritz, I'm just enjoying my free time and I wanna take care of my blog and my lovely readers. :)

mrripley said...

u r 3 in as many days lovely and such a strong year.