Polished Performances

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)

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30 Responses to “Polished Performances”

  1. A movie that discusses an interesting topic without preaching for either side. Sean Penn is amazing and I simply love the movie.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love this series of yours, Mark. This is one of my favourite films, two of my favourite actors. The soundtrack is great too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks again, Ashley. I’m happy to hear that you’re taking something from this feature. 🙂

      With regards to the film, I’m agreed on all accounts. The soundtrack is superb and Sarandon and Penn are two of the very best. Their performances are perfectly weighted here.

      Like

  3. A great performance indeed. He was riveting and his chemistry with Susan S. I love that you have opposites playing against each other. Foils are great in a story for creating conflict and they usually change each other’s minds and allows them to become dynamic. Susan won an Academy Award for this, and I agree, while I liked Cage’s performance, Matthew Poncelet was an evil character but you came to feel empathy for him. Not an easy task, but Penn made it look so.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Two very dynamic performances from Sarandon and Penn. Totally agree on the chemistry they had. They played off each other brilliantly and the humanity of their characters really shone through.
      Not to take away from Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, he was great, but he wasn’t Sean Penn great. I remember being very disappointed with that result.

      Like

      • What range Sean Penn has to then follow up with Milk and I am Sam and do it so convincingly. Then there’s his other brilliant performance in Mystic River….

        Liked by 1 person

      • Three fabulous performances you mention, Cindy. Oscar nominated for I Am Sam and the other two were Oscar winners for him. Deservingly so as well.
        I’m also a big fan of his work with DePalma: Casualties of War and Carlito’s Way.

        Like

      • I’ve GOT to rent Carlito’s Way. Hey, would you be interested in a pairing Carlito’s Way and Donnie Brasco and co-hosting the Lucky 13 Film Club in the fall with me? Depp and Penn and Pacino. What fun!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Aw man, that’s an interesting proposal. I try not to commit too much on blogging now as I always end up feeling the pressure and don’t want to let anyone down. That sounds very tempting, though.

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      • I understand, Mark. If you think of a pairing that you could get passionate about, please, it’s an open invite. A paragraph or two. And hijacking my blog on the day and commenting to your fans. No pressure, just fun! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      • When you say “Pairing”, what would be the angle we’d be taking? Which film is better or…? What’s your thoughts?

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      • However you see it. Whatever interests you. I was thinking of Al Pacino as the older talent and his chemistry with Depp and Penn, younger talents when they initially came out. Older/younger versions of talent. Passing the torch, so to speak.
        Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro.
        Al Pacino and Oscar Isaac, Depp, Penn

        Another kind of pairing would be original and remake (Cape Fear)

        Anything other than Hollywood is good with me. You’re Scottish, so a tribute to Scottish films would be cool.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It’s a great idea, Cindy. I’ve been having a little think and you can count me in. It’s too good an opportunity to pass and it would be a pleasure to collaborate with you on this. I think the passing the torch angle is an interesting one that’s not often spoken about with Pacino’s work with up and coming actors. I’m reluctant to ask for your email on the comments page but I don’t mind giving you mine. Drop me an email at mr.marakai@yahoo.co.uk and we’ll put this thing together. 🙂

        Like

  4. Oh man, Sean Penn. Great pick for this feature. I am sorry to say I have never heard of Dead Man Walking or this character but it certainly sounds fitting for a Polished Performance. For me, I’ll always see him as Jeff Spicoli and that’s a testament to how classic a character that was given everything Penn has accomplished since (excusing The Gunman from last year, of course.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thankfully, I managed to avoid The Gunman and from what I hear, I haven’t missed anything.

      Big fan of Spicoli too but I reckon Dead Man Walking is Penn’s best work. He’s simply superb. You should check it out, man.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love that you chose to focus on a single performance here. Penn’s one of the greats of his- or any other- generation. I haven’t seen him in much lately though unfortunately.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, he seems to have went a bit quiet recently doesn’t he? He always spoke in the past of retiring from acting and focusing on directing more but I hope he’s still got a few more performances in him. Definitely one of the greats. Cheers Matt. 🙂

      Like

  6. I haven’t seen this one, if I’m being honest. Seems I really should. Great piece as always Mark!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a film worth seeking out, Zoe. The performances are superb but overall it’s the debate it strikes up on the pros and cons of the death penalty. It’s cleverly opened up and it really depends on each viewers individual viewpoint on such a polarising subject.
      Thanks, as always. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I will have to look into it, because I was a big fan of how that question was handled in The Life of David Gale, so I do enjoy a movie that makes you think, especially about a sticky topic like this. I have added it to my watch list!

        Liked by 1 person

      • The Life of David Gale was a good flick too, Zoe. I enjoyed that as well but Dead Man Walking was much more powerful for me.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. An outstanding post Mark. And thanks for reminding me that I have to see this movie. It looks like one that really provokes the thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

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