Southern Movie 59: “Dead Man Walking” (1995)

When the film Dead Man Walking was released in 1995, it caused quite a stir. Its story is based on real events in Louisiana, as they had been told in a 1993 book by Sister Helen Prejean. A roman á clef of sorts, the film centers on a nun’s time with a Louisiana death row inmate during the last days before his execution, as well as her interaction with others who question her choice to provide aid or comfort to a man who committed brutal crimes. It was directed by Tim Robbins, who was in The Shawshank Redemption the year before, and stars Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen and Sean Penn as death row inmate Matthew Poncelet (who is based on convicted killer Robert Lee Willie.)

Dead Man Walking begins with a series of superimposed scenes showing a woman, who we will understand to be Sister Helen Prejean. At first we see her, she is driving, and we see only her placid expression. Then she strides through a bustling housing project, among children playing, and into a building whose sign reads “Hope House.”  Inside, people are busy with various tasks, the sister is shown a booklet that was recently printed, and a man stops her to say that a death row inmate at Angola has written to them again for assistance. Preoccupied, Sister Helen remarks that, yes, she will stop by later to get his information to write to him. Sister Helen does not appear to be a nun; she is wearing the clothes that any woman her age would. But interspersed among the current scenes are others from the past that show her younger self at her ordination.

As she is reading the letter that was described to her, we hear Matthew Poncelet’s voice speaking the words. The sister writes a reply, puts it in an envelope, and here we understand where she is going in the car. Poncelet’s reply to her reply gives some exposition about his situation and his personality.

After Sister Helen arrives at the gates of the Louisiana State Penitentiary then goes through security, we see her sitting in an office as the prison’s priest walks in and introduces himself. Though friendly, he is obviously wary of her presence there, and asks bluntly, “Have you ever been in a prison before?” No, she hasn’t. She shares a quick anecdote that is vaguely humorous, but the priest is unamused. He then wants to know where her habit is, and she explains that her order has not required a habit in twenty years. The priest is not pleased with that either and makes a backhanded remark about having her own interpretations of the rules.

Then, the priest reveals the core of his concern. Matthew Poncelet, along with another man, committed brutal murders against two teenagers who were parked on “lover’s lane.” They raped the girl then shot and stabbed the two multiple times. Sister Helen’s facial expression darkens as he speaks, and he tells her with no sugar-coating that prison inmates are con-men who will say anything to gain whatever they can. Why did she come, the priest wants to know. Because he wrote and asked me to, she replies. This priest lacks in a certain amount of compassion, but he also lacks the sister’s naivete.

As she enters the main part of the prison, the priest’s words continue as a voiceover. The men there rarely if ever see a woman, and her not wearing the habit of a nun may encourage them with her defiance of traditional authority. Also superimposed with the process of getting checked in are quick glimpses of Poncelet’s crime: a car in the dark, the barrel of a rifle, a dead man’s legs. We are slowly being initiated into what Sister Helen has involved herself in.

When Matthew Poncelet enters, they speak through dense metal mesh. The inmate is tense and cold, while the nun feigns a pleasant demeanor. She is open to listening or to discussing whatever he wants, but his responses are full of suspicion and bitterness. When they are told that their time is almost up, Poncelet’s eyes light up and he tells her that he has brought documents for an appeal. The prison officials are about to begin following through with a series of executions, and he believes that he will be one of those chosen. Poncelet doesn’t trust the staff of the prison and wants Sister Helen to carry the documents out for him, to ensure that they land where they should. She has now become an unwitting participant in a condemned man’s efforts to free himself from the penalties.

After their encounter, Sister Helen drives back to New Orleans, gets pulled over for speeding while daydreaming about an episode from her youth, then begins to dig into Poncelet’s story. We see TV footage of the trial, which includes bits of gruesome facts and the killer’s smug smirking. Sister Helen asks questions of the man who originally brought the letter to her, and he assures her that Poncelet will never walk free, only get his sentence reduced to life at best.

In the evening, Sister Helen is watching TV with another nun Sister Colleen, and the phone rings. It is Poncelet, who sounds frantic and angry, because they have set a date for his execution. He has tried to get a hearing with the pardons board, but he must have a lawyer to do that. He doesn’t have a lawyer, but Sister Helen has gotten the name of one already. Poncelet reminds forcefully that she is his only hope.

Back in the car on the way to Angola, Sister Helen talks to the lawyer, a man named Hilton Barber. He is older and jovial, and says that he’ll do his best. Once they arrive in the prison to talk with the condemned man, Barber’s tone changes, and he is all business. Poncelet maintains his innocence, but Barber reminds him that a hearing with the pardons board isn’t about that. It is stocked with the governor’s appointees, and they will want to see new evidence— something to change the sentence that has been handed down. Poncelet doesn’t like it, and his body language is shifty and resentful. Sister Helen sits there, unable to do a thing. Barber’s best idea is to present Poncelet as a human being, making it harder for them to go through with his killing, and suggests that having his mother to speak on his behalf is a good idea. Poncelet says no, that all she’ll do is burst out crying and be unable to talk. But Sister Helen chimes in and insists that a mother has the right to defend her child, no matter how she does it. Poncelet doesn’t like what she’s saying but says he’ll think about it.

After a brief transition that shows Sister Helen first reading a news article about the victim’s family then attending Mass at a vivacious service, we see her arrive at the Poncelet home. The home is simple and inauspicious, and a young man with long hair (Jack Black) is half-working on a car in the yard. He watches Sister Helen go to the door, then pretends to get back under the hood. When Sister Helen knocks on the door, Poncelet’s mother at first refuses to answer, thinking she is a TV news reporter. Inside, we see two other boys on the couch watching TV, and the two women sit at the kitchen table. Mrs. Poncelet wants to know what the sister wants and guesses that “Matty” probably sent her for cigarette money. No, Sister Helen explains, she is there to asks her to come to the hearing. Mrs. Poncelet doesn’t say no, but she tells Sister Helen about some of the family’s hardships. In addition to the normal ills of poverty, like having no money and too little food, they are known as the family of a brutal killer. People stare at her when she goes out in public, and her boys are bullied at school.

In the next scene, we see Sister Helen at dinner with her own family. This scene is very different. The family is clearly affluent and happy. Sister Helen talks about what she doing with them. They do not see it her way, encouraging her to help hard-working, honest people instead of a murderer-rapist.

Back at Angola, Sister Helen talks to Matthew Poncelet through the metal mesh again. When we see them, he is telling her about the first time he got drunk with his father, who died when young Matthew was fourteen. He then asks why she wanted to be nun, and moreover why she didn’t want any of the normal things a woman might have: family, sex. She is given pause by his questions, and Poncelet uses the opportunity to strike at being lascivious. She quickly rebukes him, however: “I’m not here for your . . . amusement.” Changing the tone, she tells him that his mother will be at the hearing.

Quickly, the scene changes to that hearing, and we see Mrs. Poncelet do exactly what her son said she would do. She gets a few words out before breaking down, then is escorted outside by Sister Helen. In their absence, Hilton Barber gives his speech about how Matthew Poncelet would not be on death row if he had had money for good legal representation, instead of having to settle for a court-appointed lawyer with no capital-case experience. This explanation of the realities for most death row inmates is juxtaposed with images of Sister Helen and Mrs. Poncelet thumbing through childhood pictures of Matthew outside. Barber’s talk is then followed by the prosecution’s lawyer, who tells another story, one of a man who heartlessly murdered two innocent teenagers and of two families will never see their children again. This time, instead of baby pictures, we see photos of slain corpses, face down and covered in blood.

As they wait on the decision of the board, Sister Helen and Hilton Barber are pacing around outside, when Barber is pulled aside to talk to another person. While Sister Helen stands alone, Walter Delacroix, the father of the boy who Poncelet killed, comes over and chastises Sister Helen. He is a Catholic, he explains, and to see her giving comfort to the killer while never having come to see the victims’ families is an insult. Sister Helen, new to this, is taken aback. The other victim’s parents also pass by, and when she attempts to say her condolences, they are cold and continue on. Trying to salvage the situation, Sister Helen offers her phone number to Delacroix, who calls her “arrogant” for thinking that he might reach out to her.

Inside, the board denies clemency to Matthew Poncelet and orders that the execution move forward as scheduled in one week. Poncelet looks irritated. His mother begins to weep outside, and Barber tells him that they have one more judge to try for an appeal.

By this point in the story, almost forty minutes into the two-hour runtime, we know that Matthew Poncelet will be executed, and the film has done a solid job of showing the complexities of the death penalty in Southern culture. Though the region’s culture is steeped in Christianity, this is an Old Testament kind of Christianity (an eye for an eye), not a New Testament kind (forgive people, don’t judge). That’s what Sister Helen is navigating. Even the killer’s family is shown no mercy in their daily lives, instead being seen as a likely source of a monster’s evil ways. At every turn, Sister Helen is met by people who can’t understand why she gives her time and energy to man who committed heinous crimes. Only a scant few characters, and all of them work with her in Hope House, even suggest that she should do what she can for Poncelet. The general sentiment is: kill him, he deserves it. This is the “tough on crime” rhetoric of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s in full effect.

As the various parties leave the board meeting, Sister Helen is apprised that her dealings with Poncelet should now turn to giving him comfort as his execution date looms. The time for hoping that his life will be spared is basically over. The sun goes down (literally and symbolically) as they board a bus to leave the prison grounds.

After a brief scene showing Sister Helen playing cards and checkers with some of the children from the housing project, she is back on the road, this time to see the Delacroix family at their home. She is clearly nervous and arrives unannounced. Walter Delacroix answers the door hesitantly and at first is cold to her.  However, he softens and lets her in, and they talk in the living room, which is littered with boxes. Walter Delacroix explains that his wife is having a very hard time with the situation, crying almost non-stop, and packing up their son’s clothes for Goodwill.  She used to be a lively woman, he explains, but not anymore. He then describes, in quiet terms, what it means to lose a child and to remember what was lost.

Back at the prison, the priest is skeptical of Sister Helen’s request to be Poncelet’s spiritual adviser for his remaining six days. He asks if she is up to the job, and she replies that she doesn’t know for sure. Her one job, he tells her, is to try to get him to take the sacraments of the Church – presumably, confession and communion – before he dies, in order to save his soul.  That’s the job, no side agendas, nothing else.

Face-to-face, Sister Helen and Poncelet begin to talk. His first request is not to be buried at the prison. He wants Sister Helen to talk to his mother, to arrange some other kind of funeral. She agrees. Turning the conversation, she asks if he reads the Bible. Some but not much, he replies, before quickly making a racist remark within a stray thought. Was your father a racist, she asks him. Poncelet becomes indignant, and the two spar over the validity of racist views. Poncelet makes broad assertions, commonly heard in the post-Civil Rights South, about disliking laziness and black victimhood, while Sister Helen tries to reign his ideas in with logic, turning them into principles to show their ironies. Poncelet is frustrated by this and asks, “Can’t we talk about something else?”

Outside the prison gates, pro- and anti-death penalty protestors make their presence known. (In the group of praying sisters shown here, a keen observer will notice that the real Sister Helen Prejean is standing to Susan Sarandon’s right.) TV crews are seen, and law enforcement officers contain or restrain people. Among the crowds, the female victim’s father Clyde Percy speaks to a news crew, proclaiming his opinion that this is the right thing to do his daughter’s killer.

In the next scene, Sister Helen is in this family’s home. Clyde and Mary Beth Percy speak to Sister Helen about their daughter Hope, who was raped then killed alongside her boyfriend. The two had been dating for a while, and Hope was slated to join the military. When the pair didn’t come home after a date one night, their parents thought that they might have eloped, but soon a missing-persons report was filed. After searches yielded nothing, some boys found Hope’s purse in the woods, then the bodies were found. The Percys were advised not to look at the body to identify their daughter, but insisted on it anyway. After describing what they had gone through, the parents want to know from Sister Helen what had changed her mind, what has led her to “come to our side.” A befuddled Sister Helen pauses before telling them she will still be Poncelet’s spiritual adviser, but has come there to offer comfort to them as well. At that point, they become angry and ask her to leave, remarking strongly that she can’t have it both ways.

After that setback, Sister Helen is then apprised that Poncelet has been interviewed on the news and has shared his racist beliefs and even his support for the Aryan Brotherhood. Trying to stand by his side gets more difficult for Sister Helen now, as people see her actions as standing by not only a rapist and a killer, but now also as a racist who endorses terrorism and denies the Holocaust. Sister Helen confronts him back at the prison, but Poncelet is his usual defiant self, shifting the discussion when it is made clear that he should answer for his behavior. He does agree that, if someone had done something like his crimes to one of his family members, he would want to see the killer dead, too. Yet, Poncelet still maintains his innocence, that the state has the wrong man.

Back at her small apartment, Sister Helen is confronted with the fact that the African-American children in her community know about Poncelet’s interview, see her absence, and combine those facts to mean that she is choosing him over them. Sister Colleen has a heart-to-heart with her about it and also shows her the suit that she’s found for Poncelet’s burial. They have arranged for him to be buried in their own graveyard, alongside the sisters.

Next we see her, Sister Helen is attending a group therapy session for the parents of murdered children with Walter Delacroix. Among the tales, Delacroix explains that his wife has filed for divorce. It’s not abnormal, he tells Sister Helen on the way out, 70% of couples split up after a child is killed.

Following that is an eerie scene that shows the nighttime murder of the two teenagers. In this version of the story, Poncelet is a scared bystander whose friend, an older and larger man, is the aggressor, while Poncelet is dismayed and flabbergasted by what is going on.  The scene is intercut with childhood pictures of the slain teenagers, and also with Sister Helen being driven into the prison, past inmates working in crop rows and past rows of inmates’ graves, as a spooky melody is sung over top.

Inside the prison, Matthew Poncelet is now in the holding area prior to his execution. He is brought out to speak to Sister Helen through a door that has a few holes in the plexiglass window. He is smirking and exhibits a dark kind of humor as he speaks, remarking sardonically that a guard stops by every fifteen minutes to make sure that he hasn’t killed himself. But there is plenty of quiet for reading the Bible, he says with a grin. Seizing on the opportunity, Sister Helen encourages him to read the parts about Jesus, especially the passages where Jesus is facing death. Poncelet doesn’t see the point, but Sister Helen tells him about how Jesus was a dangerous man because he made the lowest people in society understand that they have worth and dignity. So, they had to kill him, because people in power can’t have those kinds of sentiments being taught. Poncelet appears to understand this in vague terms, but also attempts to draw conclusions that are off the mark.

Their talk is interrupted by some procedural maneuver, which they will not divulge to Sister Helen. They rush in as a pack and take Poncelet away, refusing to tell her what is happening. She waits outside and for a moment speaks to one of the guard, who tries to explain away his role in the executions by saying that it isn’t easy but it’s part of the job. While she is waiting, the priest also comes to speak with her about her role in Poncelet’s final week. They debate the Old Testament versus New Testament way of looking at the death penalty, but that discussion is cut short when Sister Helen passes out. They will not allow any food in the “death house,” and her blood sugar got too low. Once she was back on her feet, the warden refused to let her return to Poncelet, sending her home instead.

The next time she sees Poncelet, he is furious. They had been measuring and weighing him, and when he returned, she was gone. The guards told Sister Helen that they would tell Poncelet what happened, but they didn’t. It is now the day before his execution, and Poncelet is clearly tense. Sister Helen tells him that the one federal appeal is still out there, and there’s still the governor who could grant clemency. Poncelet knows not to count on the governor and berates himself for saying those things about Hitler and terrorism. Sister’s good news is that she has found a man to do the lie detector test that he wants, but it probably won’t do much good since his stress level will be so high that an accurate reading probably won’t be possible. She then turns her efforts again to his death and salvation, urging him to look some more at his Bible and, ultimately, to admit his role in the murders.  Poncelet remains silent.

On the way into the governor’s office, Hilton Barber explains to Sister Helen that he has arranged for a private meeting, so as to convince the governor of Poncelet’s humanity. When they get inside, though, the room is chock-full of press and staff, and the governor gives a milquetoast speech about administering the laws as written and carrying out the will of the people. Barber is obviously chagrined at having been double-crossed and tells Sister Helen that there’s still the one court-related possibility left.

On the last night before the execution, Sister Helen sleeps at her mother’s home, but has a nightmare. She sees Poncelet at the dinner table with her family and remembers herself as the tormented little girl we saw in the beginning of the film. On waking, she has a heart-to-heart talk with her mother about what she is facing, then watches the sunrise on the porch.

At the prison, Matthew Poncelet says that he wants to face his execution head-on. He refuses to take the medicine they offered him to help him sleep. His family will come today, and though Sister Helen offers to leave him alone with them, to have his privacy, he would rather her be there. His mood then darkens and that snide humor from before is gone. With side-looking eyes, he asks questions out loud about the process of the execution: will he feel the effects when each shot is administered? will the first shot only disallow his body from responding to what he feels? After this, he is taken to the lie detector test, while Sister Helen is in the next room being questioned by a guard why she is helping him. His is yet another voice among the many, expressing the idea that someone who has done something so horrible deserves no mercy, no compassion, no sympathy, and no love.

In the visiting room, Poncelet gets to spend some time with his mother and brothers. They laugh and joke like a normal family, talking about old girlfriends, camping tents, and other mundane things. Guards stand around the room stoically, and Sister Helen sits nearby, smiling shyly at their antics. Things go well until his mother says out of the blue, “Back home, people are asking about your funeral, but I keep telling them that you’re not dead yet.” The mood sours quickly, and no one has anything else to say. After a time lapse, the visit is over. Poncelet refuses to allow goodbyes, saying his fight isn’t done. His mother waits until she is outside to break down.

Sister Helen tells Matthew Poncelet, when he is back in his cell, that he failed the lie detector test. He is surprised. With almost time left – the clock shows 8:30 PM and he will be executed at midnight – Sister Helen takes a very direct approach. She tells Poncelet that they need to talk about his actions, and he replies, “I don’t want to talk about that night.”

But the film shifts to the events of that night. We see the teenagers making out in the car when Poncelet and his older friend walk up on them. They declare with sly grins that the teenagers are trespassing on private property and that they are under arrest. Scared, the teenagers comply and are walked through the woods, until the older man throws the girl on the ground.

The scene then cuts back to Poncelet’s cell. Two hours have passed, it is 10:30 PM. He is yelling about how he was under the influence of drugs and how it was his friend-accomplice’s fault, how “he went psycho on me.” Sister replies that he blames everyone and everything – including the government and black people – but will take no responsibility himself. Poncelet allows her remarks until she calls him a victim. “I ain’t no victim,” he replies coldly.

Just then the warden comes in and interrupts them. The federal appeals court has denied him. Poncelet is taken to the telephone to speak about the refusal, and Sister Helen is taken outside in the hall. Unable to take a nearby secretary’s incessant typing and the guards’ business-like manner, she removes herself to the bathroom and prays fervently.

There is just under a half-hour left in Dead Man Walking, but Matthew Poncelet’s time is short. They have shaved his leg and administered an antihistamine in case he has a reaction to the shot that will sedate him. Sister Helen sees his tattoos for the first time, and he acts embarrassed by them. Knowing that his time is almost up, he wants her to take his Bible. They are interrupted again, this time for his last telephone call. Unlike the parting with his family earlier, this conversation is tearful. This will be goodbye.

After the conversation is over and Sister Helen is back at his cell, a Matthew Poncelet with humble, downcast eyes admits what he did. He told his mother that she was right to want him away from that older man whose cruel, tough lead he followed, but he was too scared to defy the example and stand up to the bully. He calls himself a “victim,” and “yellow” at that. He then looks at Sister Helen and tells her that he killed the Delacroix boy. Urging him forward, Sister Helen asks if he raped the Percy girl. “Yes, ma’am,” he responds, choking back tears. Doing a complete one-eighty from his previous insistence that he was innocent, Poncelet takes his last chance to seek reconciliation by being honest about what he has done. Sister Helen consoles him by acknowledging that he has done “terrible things” but that he is still a “Son of God.” As perhaps the last aspect of becoming a changed man, Poncelet remarks that it is ironic how he had to die to be loved, and he thanks Sister Helen for loving him.

After singing a brief song that she had promised once to play for him, Sister Helen is told to step away from the cell and into the corridor. They both know what this means: Poncelet will be prepared for his execution. Sister Helen leaves the cell and sees Walter Delacroix and the Percys, who have come to witness the execution. Poncelet begins to shout at the guards who have shackled him and taken his boots, which he planned to wear for his last walk. Sister Helen then meets him in the hallway to remind him that he is loved, telling him to concentrate on her so the face of love is the last one he sees in his life. As they get moving, the guard shouts, “Dead man walking!”

With her hand on his shoulder, Sister Helen reads from the Bible to Poncelet as he walks to the chamber where he will be strapped down and put to death. She is stopped at the chamber door and the two share a last goodbye. In the witnesses’ room, Hilton Barber waits to sit with Sister Helen. The Percys give her a nasty look, and Walter Delacroix looks at her coldly.

The next scene shows Matthew Poncelet being strapped down and having an IV inserted into a vein in his arm. The scene is slow and methodical, and when they are finished, he is given a chance to say any last words. Poncelet asks for forgiveness from Walter Delacroix for taking his son away from him, then tells the Percys that he hopes hopes his death with give them some relief. He adds that he believes that killing is wrong, no matter who does it— him, them, the government. With that, he nods that he is finished speaking and is lowered back down. Flat on his back, he looks to Sister Helen and says, “I love you.” She mouths the words back and reaches her hand out to him. The prison priest is seen in the background, staring and bland, a subtle commentary from the filmmaker that, while this one nun may care about all life, the bureaucratic officials of the Church do not.

While Matthew Poncelet is being executed, as the machine administers the toxic substances, we alternately see scenes from his crimes. We are to assume that these were the actual events, not the events that a man claiming to be innocent described. Here, two men treat their victims brutally and with savagery. They taunt their victims and switch places when raping the girl. Seeing this man be executed, a viewer will not be allowed to perceive the condemned as free of blame or unjustly treated with disdain. His crime and punishment are shown together, in tandem, interwoven.

At Poncelet’s funeral, the family is there, along with a few assorted others. And standing at a distance is Walter Delacroix. Sister Helen goes over to speak to him, and he admits that he doesn’t know why he is there, that he still has a lot of hate. She offers for them to work through it together, but he doesn’t know whether that will do any good.

The movie ends, though, on two notes of hope. Sister Helen returns home one day to handmade cards created by the children of her neighborhood, telling her that they love her. We understand that she has been forgiven in her community. And finally, she meets Walter Delacroix at a small church, where they pray together alone.

Dead Man Walking is a powerful film that does not offer easy answers, either about the death penalty or about Southern culture. Many, many historians and critics of the South have remarked upon the region’s dual penchants for Christianity and violence, and the death penalty is a cultural feature that merges the two. It is common to hear its use justified by the Biblical admonition “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Thus, do to the criminal what the criminal did to the victim. In this film, we hear that line of thinking expressed by every type of Southerner: the victims’ middle-class families, the working-class prison guards, even Sister Helen’s affluent family. However, one woman – a nun at that – refuses that rhetoric, acts in defiance of it, and replaces it with other Biblical admonitions: to forgive, to turn the other cheek, to help the powerless, and to visit those who are in prison.

As a document of the South, Dead Man Walking also covers other issues that are prevalent. We see a politician evade responsibility for tough decisions, while making stern proclamations about standing up for right and against wrong. We see the people working within unjust and inhumane systems absolve themselves by saying, “It’s just part of the job.” We hear a lecture from a defense lawyer about how people with the money for legal representation don’t end up facing the harshest penalties. We listen to a frustrated white Southern man express loathing for all African Americans based on his assumptions about their entitlement and victimhood. Finally, we are asked to consider how both the victim’s family and a killer’s family live with the legacy of crimes.

It cannot be ignored that Dead Man Walking was released the year after the landmark Crime Bill of 1994. This federal law, sponsored by a representative from Texas and signed by a president from Arkansas, was the fruition of “tough on crime” rhetoric, which flourished after the Civil Rights movement. Many of its modern opponents claim that this bill has led to mass incarceration in recent decades with its mandatory sentencing. Some critics include the fact that it has played a role in convincing the public that people convicted of crimes deserve no mercy. It should be noted that most of the states with the highest execution rates are in the South.

Finally, what also cannot be ignored are the dissimilarities between the film’s story and the actual events that the story is based on. Though we see Matthew Poncelet humanized, he is based on a death row inmate named Robert Lee Willie, who is sometimes described as a serial killer. The real Sister Helen was his spiritual adviser, but unlike the film’s version, she was asked by the prison priest to take on that role, because she had done that once before for another death row inmate. (The film instead portrays Poncelet’s case as her first and the prison priest as antagonistic.)  Also, in the real story, Willie’s father and grandfather were both alive when he was executed, and both condoned his execution in light of how horrible his crimes were. That’s quite different from the film, in which Poncelet’s father had been dead for many years. (By contrast, Willie’s mother really did make the “good boy” comments we hear in Poncelet’s hearing.) These kinds of facts, if the film had been faithful to them, would have changed the tenor of the story, and it is important to remember that feature films are not documentaries.


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