While the films “Longford” and “Dead Man Walking” are ostensibly about the death penalty, the real value of both films is their profound exploration of the depth of human evil.
On June 7, 1998 a Texan, John William King, along with friends Shawn Berry and Lawrence Brewer, killed African American James Byrd. They beat him, then chained him to the back of their pickup and dragged him for miles along a country road.
Being rasped alive by the road surface, Byrd died when he hit a culvert and his right arm and head were torn off. The murderers dumped what was left of him outside a country church, then went off to party with some friends at a barbecue.
Shawn Berry was sentenced to life in prison. Brewer was executed in 2011. King died by lethal injection in April. Brewer and King never expressed remorse for their crime and said they would do it again if they had the chance.
The remembrance of this horrible crime prompted me to ponder the death penalty again by watching two films: Longford and Dead Man Walking.
Dead Man Walking is the story of American nun and anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean. Played by Susan Sarandon, Sister Helen establishes a relationship with death-row inmate Matthew Poncelet, played by Sean Penn. Poncelet was convicted for the abduction of a teen couple, raping the girl first, then killing both the boy and the girl. His story is based on the real crimes committed by
Longford is the based on the true story of British prison reform campaigner, Lord Longford. As Sister Helen befriended the perpetrator of a horrible crime, so Longford befriends the “Moors Murderer” Myra Hindley. Hindley and her boyfriend Ian Brady abducted, tortured, sexually assaulted and murdered five children.*
It would have been easy to produce a film that either portrayed Lord Longford and Sister Helen as saints in waiting or as hopelessly naive do-gooders. Fortunately, in both cases the film makers took the better course of portraying the reality of human evil and the real conflicts and inner contradictions of the pro-life heroes.
At first we identify with Longford and Sister Helen. We share their struggle against the prevailing hatred of Poncelet and Hindley. We even begin to sympathize with the criminals. Then in each film, a deeper underlying evil peeks through the layers of manipulation, subterfuge, self-deception and insidious lying of Poncelet and Hindley.
You won’t mind the spoilers because both films are worth watching for the deft handling of the drama. In Longford it is the psychopath Ian Brady (Hindley’s lover and partner in crime) who tells Longford that he is being used. Hindley has been trading on her supposed Catholic faith to lure Longford into sympathizing with her. Brady reveals that in fact, Hindley is feigning remorse and respect for Longford while all the time she is mocking his appearance, his faith, and his naivety.
For Sister Helen the enlightenment comes when Poncelet finally confesses tearfully. Under her guidance he has been reading the Bible and he confides in her that he understands it all and accepts it. Then, in a terrible moment, he says sincerely that he understands because he is like Jesus. He is going to be executed too.
In both films what is revealed is the subtle nature of true evil. The depth of evil was not primarily the terrible crimes of Hindley and Poncelet. As terrible as they were, the deeper evil is the stubborn self-righteousness, the deception, and the layer-upon-layer of intertwined lies. With Longford and Sister Helen, we believed Hindley and Poncelet. We believed their lies because first of all they believed their lies.
In the end Poncelet is executed. Hindley escapes the death penalty because just a few months before her conviction capital punishment is outlawed in Britain.
While Longford and Dead Man Walking are ostensibly about the death penalty, the real value of both films is their profound exploration of the depth of human evil. One of the arguments against the death penalty is that a life sentence gives the criminal more time to take responsibility and repent. However, the two films, perhaps inadvertently, reveal a horrifying depth of evil that excludes repentance and remorse.
When a person lies to himself about his true nature, and when the lies accumulate into a complex network of lies, it becomes harder and harder to get down to the raw truth. The lies are not simply a denial of the crimes one committed. One may well admit those crimes. The lies consist of the person’s network of justification, blaming extenuating circumstances, shifting the blame to others who either participated or drove him to the crime. The liar is convincing because, in believing the lies himself, he has become blind to the fact that he is lying. Lying has become his identity. The layers of deception are complicated by self-pity and recrimination; the final deceit is the false remorse and fake repentance which is portrayed in both films.
At that point, like Poncelet, it may be that the criminal does not truly repent because he cannot. He cannot because he is too completely wrapped in the bondage of his own lies. Instead his repentance is simply another form of self-pity and self righteousness. In the final self-deception he sees himself as a good person because he has suffered so much. In the final deception of complete egoism he sees himself as a kind of noble martyr figure, and he mistakes those feelings for repentance.
If my analysis is accurate, then the reading of both films is even more terrifying, for if the true evil is the depth of self-deception, which of us is really, brutally honest with ourselves? How much do we see ourselves as we really are, or do we also hide within a labyrinth of deceptions, false self-images, pretense, romanticized notions about ourselves, profound selfishness and egoism?
The opportunity to view these films came just a week or so after Holy Week and Easter, so they were juxtaposed with another powerful film about crime and punishment: Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. There the stark choice is also revealed in the witness of the two thieves.
Stubborn in his self-righteousness, and blaming Jesus for his fate, is the bad thief. On the other side hangs Saint Dismas, who can only cry out in true penitence, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
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*If you have the stomach you can read about their crimes.
Editor’s note: The featured image is a still from the movie “Dead Man Walking” (1996).