American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
After seeing "Dead Man Walking," I paused outside the screening to jot a final line on my notes: "This film ennobles filmmaking." That is exactly what it does. It demonstrates how a movie can confront a grave and controversial issue in our society and see it fairly, from all sides, not take any shortcuts, and move the audience to a great emotional experience without unfair manipulation. What is remarkable is that the film is also all the other things a movie should be: absorbing, surprising, technically superb and worth talking about for a long time afterward.
The movie begins with a Louisiana nun, Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), who works in an inner-city neighborhood. One day she receives a letter from an inmate on Death Row, asking her to visit him. So she visits him. The prison chaplain (Scott Wilson) doesn't think much of her visit, and briefs her on the ways that prisoners can manipulate outsiders. He obviously thinks of her as a bleeding heart. Her answer is unadorned: "He wrote to me and asked me to come." The inmate, named Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), has been convicted, along with another man, of participating in the rape and murder of two young people on a lovers' lane. We see him first through the grating of a visitor's pen, so that his face breaks into jigsawlike pieces. In looks and appearance, he is the kind of person you would instinctively dread: He has the mousy little goatee and elaborate pompadour of a man with deep misgivings about his face. His voice is halting and his speech is ignorant. He smokes a cigarette as if sneaking puffs in a grade-school washroom. He tells her, "They got me on a greased rail to the Death House here." He wants her to help with his appeal. At one point, he mentions that they don't have anything in common. Sister Helen thinks about that, and says, "You and I have something in common. We both live with the poor." His face looks quietly stunned, as if for the first time in a long time he has been confronted with an insight about his life that is not solely ego-driven. She says that she will come to see him again and that she will help him file a last-minute appeal against his approaching execution.
Sister Helen, as played here by Sarandon and written and directed by Tim Robbins (from the memoir by the real Helen Prejean), is one of the few truly spiritual characters I have seen in the movies. Movies about "religion" are often only that - movies about secular organizations that deal in spirituality. It is so rare to find a movie character who truly does try to live according to the teachings of Jesus (or anyone else, for that matter) that it's a little disorienting: This character will behave according to what she thinks is right, not according to the needs of a plot, the requirements of a formula, or the pieties of those for whom religion, good grooming, polite manners and prosperity are all more or less the same thing.
But wait. The film is not finished with its bravery. At this point in any conventional story, we would expect developments along familiar lines. Take your choice: (1) The prisoner is really innocent, and Sister Helen leads his 11th-hour defense as justice is done; (2) They fall in love with one another, she helps him escape, and they go on a doomed flight from the law; or, less likely, (3) She converts him to her religion, and he goes to his death praising Jesus.