Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Alex Blosser: Forgiveness in Two Films

Matthew: “Mr. Delacroix, I don’t wanna leave this world with any hate in my heart. I ask your forgiveness for what I done. It was a terrible thing I done, taking your son away from you.”

Mr. Percy (to his wife) “How about us?”

Matthew: “Mr. and Mrs. Percy, I hope my death gives you some relief.”

This final exchange from the film Dead Man Walking occurs as Matthew Poncelet, a convicted murderer and rapist, is being executed via lethal injection. The families of the victims look on as he utters his last words. Here in the contrast between how Matthew speaks to the parents there is an important distinction made between two central views in the movie: that the murderer deserves to die, and that he deserves forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a topic covered by films of all genres, but two in particular that we viewed in class approach this often nebulous idea in different ways. Dead Man Walking, directed by Tim Robbins tells a story of a man asking for forgiveness from those who will not give it to him. The 1990 thriller Flatliners, on the other hand, tells us that forgiveness will set us free. So how can we reconcile these messages?

First, Dead Man Walking. This movie tells the story of Matthew Poncelet (played by Sean Penn), a convicted criminal who raped and murdered a teenage couple out in the woods at night. On death row, Sister Helen (played by Susan Sarandon) befriends Matthew and the two develop a very unique relationship, even as the families of the murdered teenagers begin to shun Sister Helen for “choosing sides”. Here, the parents are calling for blood. They want Matthew to suffer just as their children did. “This is not a person, this is an animal” Mr. Percy says, and you hear and feel the hate and pain he feels. Something has been taken away from these families, something they will never get back. 

These families are in crisis – they are desperately looking for some way to feel better, some outlet for their grief and rage and anguish. They are not looking to be free from Matthew’s influence, they are looking to get closer and closer into it. The Percys and Mr. Delacroix show up to his execution, after all. 

This view of the events of the movie is all for the death penalty. It looks at Matthew either as less than human for his actions, or as his killing being an act of absolute justice – an eye for an eye. This is the viewpoint shared by the parents as well as much of the general public and media shown in the film. News anchors, protesters, all wanting Matthew to die for what he did. The way this movie opens on his character, you feel their emotions. He is unremorseful, rude, racist, antisemetic, and a whole long list of undesirable personality traits and beliefs that intentionally put distance between the viewer and Matthew, make it harder for the viewer to empathize with him. 

But, when Matthew and Sister Helen become closer near the end of the movie, the narrative changes. The most powerful scene in the movie, in my opinion, has Sister Helen and Matthew conversing through the walls of his cell. When Matthew repents, Helen calls him a Son of God, and he’s shaken. This isn’t something he’s been called before. By showing affection and care, and by opening up to the hardened criminal, Sister Helen changes him enough for that final scene to occur. It’s intense. This certainly wasn’t something anyone in the audience was expecting. 

Stories like Dead Man Walking ask you difficult questions without giving you a straight answer. When Matthew goes on television talking about how he loves Hitler and the Nazis, your impression of him changes immediately and permanently. But is it enough to change your belief of whether or not he should die? Should it be enough to change your belief? People are imperfect, sometimes profoundly so, and attempting to apply a format of universal forgiveness can be more difficult for some than for others. Does forgiveness require the other person to be living? Can you be vengeful and then forgive the individual after? By showing us Matthew and not forcing us to love or hate him, Robbins creates a much more compelling story than if he had chosen one or the other. 

The honest and unfortunate truth is that we are imperfect at forgiving, just as we are imperfect and requiring forgiveness. Absolute forgiveness is divine because it requires a sort of idealism that is difficult, if not impossible for most people to possess. And is it even pragmatic? In a situation such as Matthew’s, looking back to the words of Sarah Montana can help us. “It is the criminal justice system’s job to assess what is owed to society. Not to victims.”(1) Should society ever be owed something as valuable as a life, even if one has been taken away? 

The second movie here is Flatliners, which presents a much simpler premise and message, though no less important. The premise of Flatliners is a little silly: a group of medical school students wonder what the experience of dying feels like, so they take turns stopping each other’s hearts (and definitely getting a ton of brain damage in the process) to explore this new frontier. Importantly, this results in actions from their pasts coming back to haunt them, often in frightening ways. Each of the main characters makes peace with their past in their own way, and the movie ends on an uplifting note.

While Dead Man Walking deals more with forgiving others for terrible actions, Flatliners addresses forgiving yourself for terrible actions you committed. One character accidentally killed a child when he was younger. Another mercilessly bullied a woman in school. Yet another slept with dozens of women and recorded it without their knowledge while he was engaged. The characters’ actions are less than ideal, and understandably cause them a great deal of trauma. But how should you reconcile forgiving yourself with others forgiving you?

One scene in Flatliners touches on this question in particular. David Labraccio (played by Kevin Bacon), who bullied a fellow classmate, is haunted by her insulting him everywhere he goes. In desperation, he looks her up in the phonebook and apologizes in person. They hadn’t talked in decades, and the classmate barely even remembered the incident. But it hurt David immensely. He begs for her forgiveness and apologizes profusely, then leaves. While watching, you as the viewer begin to understand that this is not for the woman at all; she had very little memory of the incident occurring. This event is for David, allowing him to forgive himself. 

Forgiveness in Flatliners is purely for the main characters, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Forgiving yourself for your own actions is similar in reasoning for forgiving others – it frees you from the adverse connection to the prior event or events. But it’s hard for these people who have lived so long under the guilt of action (or inaction) to see a world without that weight. Nelson (played by Keifer Sutherland), who accidentally killed a fellow child (Billy) by throwing rocks at him, sees death as the only escape for his crimes. Billy is gone, after all. He can’t forgive Nelson. This connection cannot be broken as easily as the David’s, but in the end (spoilers!) he survives the attempt and closes the movie with the words “today wasn’t a good day to die”.

Movies are a useful medium for exploring philosophical problems because they show us so much more than words on a page can – the unspoken emotions of individuals involved in difficult acts of forgiveness. Roger Ebert’s review of Dead Man Walking speaks on the power of the movie better than I can: “The movie comes down to a drama of an entirely unexpected kind: a spiritual drama, involving Matthew’s soul. Christianity teaches that all sin can be forgiven, and that no sinner is too low for God’s love. Sister Helen believes that. Truly believes it, with every atom of her being. And yet she does not press Matthew for a “religious” solution to his situation. What she hopes for is that he can go to his death in reconciliation with himself and his crime.”(2) No normal person can easily accept the crimes Matthew committed, and as the movie progresses you realize that the mask he was putting on at the beginning is one of fear. All he knows is to act strong, to “take things like a man,” and in the film he’s over his head. But, nobody except for Sister Helen knows that. Matthew’s final scene, where he asks for forgiveness as he is about to die, is undoubtedly for both the parents and for himself. Somewhere, deep down, everyone in that room knows that they have to free themselves from this fatal connection of murderer and victim. It’s just not as easy to do it. 

1) Montana, Sarah. The Real Risk of Forgiveness-And Why It’s Worth It. TED online video. 

2) Ebert, Roger. Dead Man Walking Movie Review., January 12, 1996.

Flatliners. Columbia Pictures, 1990.

Dead Man Walking. Gramercy Pictures, 1995.

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