The condemned man, Pat Sonnier (played by Sean Penn), was convicted of the brutal slaying of a teenage couple in 1977. His brother, convicted of the same crime, received life imprisonment.
Sister Helen visits the convict on death row at his invitation. She works hard to save his life. She also visits the parents of the slain teens. She is moved to tears as she hears the parents tell of their children and how their murders have devastated their lives. Here the real power of the movie comes across. Helen (and the moviegoer) are not allowed to identify with just one side or the other. Helen (and the moviegoer) feel the whole horror of the murder, feel the pain of both the victims and the criminal, and come to care for them all. Helen and the moviegoer come to feel very much like I think Christ feels as he looks upon the same people and the same event.
Helen also fulfills the role a nun should fulfill. She very much works to save the condemned man’s soul. She succeeds. Here the movie had an unanticipated effect upon me. The movie is intended to be an argument (and not a superficial one) against the death penalty. Helen was against the death penalty because it is applied selectively. It seems only the poor are ever executed. I share her position. However, I left the theater feeling better about the death penalty than when I went in. It was because the death penalty (with Helen and God’s help) very much contributes to the convict’s salvation as a human being. As with other work, when you have "soul work" to do, nothing seems to help as much as a known deadline. Or as Samuel Johnson wrote: "Depend on it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."
©1996 C. David Hess