• Actor: Sean Penn
• Character: Matthew Poncelet
• Film: Dead Man Walking
Right from the early days in his career Sean Penn steadily built a reputation by playing unhinged and intense characters. It’s an approach and character choice that has never left him but, arguably, he wasn’t really fully established until he took on the role of Matthew Poncelet in Tim Robbins’ 1995 film, Dead Man Walking.
Poncelet is a convicted rapist and murderer on death row. He befriends a Catholic nun who acts as his spiritual advisor in the days leading up to his execution and the correspondence they share results in Poncelet reflecting on the heinous actions that led to his incarceration.
When we’re introduced to Poncelet, we notice his striking appearance; tattoos, mousy goatee and his pompadour hair but it’s his personality that is most striking. He’s an angry, arrogant man that’s filled with rage and bigoted opinions. Every time he opens his mouth all we hear is sexist and racist remarks. He accepts no responsibility for his crimes and protests his innocence, choosing instead to blame everything on his accomplice. Make no mistake, Poncelet is a hugely despicable individual and from the first moment Penn arrives onscreen, you genuinely do not like this man.
It’s an astonishing performance, not just because Penn welcomes you to hate him, but because he manages to convince you that there’s something more to his character. Something deeper. It isn’t just what you see on the surface. Poncelet is a product of his environment and Penn eventually reveals the layers to him to expose a humanity that’s buried deep inside. He conveys a wide range of emotions that not only show his impressive range as an actor but he does so in such a gut-wrenchingly emotive way.
The hatred you feel towards him changes over the course of the film. It, surprisingly, lessens. You begin to understand the man behind the monster but Penn knows exactly how far to his pitch his performance and he never manipulates you to the point of sympathy. Whether or not you can forgive his actions is entirely up to the individual viewer but to even have you question yourself is testament to the subtlety, the nuance and the depth that Penn displays.It was a film that struck up a dialogue on the nature and morality of the death penalty and without excusing the actions of Poncelet it still manages to question the moral standpoint of society and it’s chosen method of punishment. This may not have been possible had Penn not delivered such an emotionally commanding performance where he imbues the character with a genuine humanity underneath his dark exterior.
It’s not hard to see how powerful Penn is in the film but what can often go unnoticed (and worth noting) is that Penn has shackles on his hands and feet throughout the whole movie and isn’t able to communicate with very much body language. This a performance that’s totally reliant on his facial expressions and his delivery of the dialogue. That’s not always easy to do but Penn handles it with aplomb and delivers an incredible performance that is arguably the one that solidified his reputation as one of the most intense actors of his generation.
Oscars? – Penn would receive his first Oscar nomination at the 1996 Academy Awards for playing Matthew Poncelet and many believe he should have won (myself included). However, he was beaten that year by Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas.
(You can find more Polished Performances here)