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Tim Robbins directed Dead Man Walking, but it’s really a Susan Sarandon picture. Though Robbins indulges his directorial prerogatives with a cross-cutting frenzy that ends the film on a jarringly hysterical note, Walking is far closer to the emotional resonance of Lorenzo’s Oil than to the knee-jerk burlesque of Bob Roberts. (The film was in fact originally Sarandon’s idea.) Given a more contemplative ending, it would be stunning; as it stands, it’s still one of the most compelling Hollywood dramas of recent years.

Though the book and the movie share a title, this is not a cinematic retelling of Sister Helen Prejean’s 1993 nonfiction account of her ministry to Louisiana death row inmates. Instead, it’s a dramatization, and the convicted killer is a composite. Such simplifications often yield glib results, but that’s not the case here. Robbins’ script is wonderfully specific and remarkably true to the flood of messy emotions—rage, fear, confusion—unleashed by the murder of two teenagers and the upcoming execution of Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) for the crime.

A liberal Catholic nun, Sarandon’s Prejean finds herself facing as many conundrums as Poncelet and the film’s other principal characters, the anguished parents of the slain youths. The nun lives in a poor African-American housing project in New Orleans, but upon answering Poncelet’s letter from death row finds herself the “spiritual adviser” to a swaggering punk who proclaims white-supremacist views to a TV interviewer. Poncelet faces death alone, and when she takes up his cause Prejean also becomes isolated: Her black friends don’t understand why she’s comforting a racist, and the victim’s parents can’t comprehend her empathy for a convicted murderer, while the prison chaplain thinks she’s overstepping her place by taking a role usually reserved for a priest.

An opponent of the death penalty, Prejean enlists attorney Hilton Barber (Robert Prosky) to save Poncelet’s life. She also wants to save his soul, however, and that involves his admission of his part in the murders. Though the film keeps Poncelet’s exact role in the crime to itself until the final moments, he’s clearly no Perry Mason guest star waiting for a last-minute confession by the real culprit; he denies killing either victim, but he admits to being present during the attack.

Since this is Prejean’s first death-row case, it’s a voyage of discovery for her as much as for the audience. She goes to visit the victims’ parents and develops a rapport with one of the fathers, Earl Delacroix (Raymond J. Barry). The other set also welcomes her, assuming that her visit means she’s no longer working with Poncelet; discovering that she still is, they uncomprehendingly throw her out of their house.

Prejean doesn’t want to take sides, and—remarkably—neither does Walking. This is a death-row tour with a human, not a political, agenda, and an anti-capital-punishment film as steely as any pro-execution text. Though the depth of the nun’s compassion is uncommon, she’s no superwoman; Sarandon’s performance conveys her bewilderment as well as it does her dedication. In Penn, the film finds an ideal foil for her; his Poncelet is profoundly dislikable, yet not a one-dimensional monster. He may not be justifiable, but he’s comprehensible.

Robbins and his crew ground these exceptional performances with credible, unshowy support. The only baroque flourishes are a few super-tight close-ups, the flashbacks both to Prejean’s childhood and to the crime—which seize control of the film in its final, more-is-less crescendo—and the Pakistani-grunge-swamp-blues score, which was composed by David Robbins, the director’s brother, and features the vocals of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Eddie Vedder. (As has become customary, there’s also a Springsteen song for the final credits.) The music’s not bad, but its overweening eclecticism is a bit distracting.

Everything else about the film, however, is intensely focused. If Robbins undermines the impact of the lethal-injection climax, he’s already made the point earlier, with the deeply discomfiting scene in which Poncelet says farewell to his mother and his younger brothers. Such moments thrillingly ignore the basic Hollywood imperatives, combining inextricably the sympathetic and the distasteful, the worthy and the contemptible. Walking has the courage of such ambiguity, as well as of its boldly original quest: It’s a drama in which the heroine seeks not triumph but simply understanding.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is more believable when she’s out of control than when she’s overcontrolled, so even those who winced through The Hudsucker Proxy and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle might want to give her a chance in director Ulu Grosbard’s Georgia. Leigh doesn’t play the title character, but then the film’s method is to use one sister as the key to unlock two stories: those of chilly, maternal older sister Georgia Flood (played by Leigh’s childhood friend, Mare Winningham) and the overheated, self-destructive Sadie (Leigh), a catalyst for both characters’ revelations. (In keeping with the family motif, scripter Barbara Turner is Leigh’s mother.) Each sister is a singer, but where Georgia has a career, Sadie has little more than delusions.

Winningham, who really can trill in an appropriately Joan Baez mode, plays a country-folk-rock star, something like a Seattle Mary Chapin Carpenter. After the hapless Sadie slips out of another bad backup-singer gig—with Trucker (Jimmy Witherspoon), a bluesman crazy for guns—she turns up backstage at one of her sister’s hometown gigs. Georgia welcomes her cautiously; her husband Jake (Ted Levine) more enthusiastically. Where Georgia believes she ought to believe in family—she’s even installed her new one in the house where she and Sadie grew up—Jake seems genuinely to like the way Sadie stirs things up.

The couple takes Sadie home for a while, even though Georgia doesn’t think Sadie’s taste for booze and drugs is a good influence on their kids. Soon, Sadie has forced herself on a skeptical former associate, Bobby (John Doe), and is singing backup with his country-rock band. She doesn’t lose the job even after passing out, high on NyQuil, while performing at a Jewish wedding reception. After all, she’s not the most dope-addled member of the band.

In a skid row parody of Georgia’s exurban domesticity, Sadie finds a geeky admirer, 23-year-old delivery boy Axel (Max Perlich), and marries him. Reluctantly, Georgia helps Sadie’s career. Georgia joins Sadie onstage at a club and, at Axel’s urging, gets her sister a slot at an AIDS benefit where she’ll also be performing. Both incidents end with at least one sister distraught. (Where Sadie is forever proclaiming her devotion to Georgia onstage, her harsh singing seems a rebuke to her sister’s prissy style.) When even Axel tires of Sadie’s jittery moodiness, she heads for San Francisco, crumples emotionally, and finally accepts a ticket back to Seattle from Georgia. So broken-down that the airline is reluctant to allow her on the plane, Sadie ends up in a rehab center.

Georgia’s showcase scene is the one at the benefit, where Sadie’s attempt to channel Van Morrison makes the audience so fidgety that Georgia feels obliged to intervene. It’s a little hard to accept the sibling rivalries the film plays out onstage, however, because its portrait of contemporary music scenes is so off the mark. Though Sadie and Georgia often seem painfully real, the Seattle in which they live is an alternate universe.

Those who pay some attention to contemporary pop music will find a lot of Georgia’s details mystifying. Bobby’s country-rock band has a repertoire consisting almost entirely of Lou Reed songs; Sadie seems to want to be a tortured blues-rock poet in the manner of Van Morrison or Janis Joplin, yet her heavy black eye makeup is clearly auditioning for a gig with a goth band like Alien Sex Fiend; Georgia’s demure music is apparently the biggest thing in a Seattle where grunge never happened (although heroin did).

The film’s principal conceit is that Georgia is talented and that Sadie isn’t, but that assumes that a dulcet voice is central to pop-music success, something that hasn’t been true for at least four decades. Yeah, Leigh can’t sing, but listen to Doe’s version of “I’ll Be Your Mirror”—he can’t sing either, and he’s been making records for 15 years. (In fact, Doe and Leigh’s near-miss harmonies are much like those of Doe’s band, X, in its early days.) Plenty of contemporary singers rely more on bravado than on skill or talent—and Leigh demonstrates her bravado every second she’s on screen. In the age of Courtney Love, Leigh’s weird-little-girl stage presence is hardly so outlandish as the film’s makers must think.

Though the big scenes occur under a spotlight, Georgia’s finest moments take place in more private settings. The two sisters have an elliptical conversation in the kitchen that is powerfully convincing, and their Thanksgiving dinner is as edgy as a real one. (Sadie is actually twitchier offstage than on.) This is a film about sisters more than singers, and it’s bracing in those sequences where that priority is clear.

It’s still Halloween in Hollywood, where heavy-breathing soundtracks, vulnerable young women, and cameras that take the viewpoint of a stalking killer are prized for their audience-gripping power. Portraying women solely as victims leaves a sour aftertaste these days, though, so faux-feminist slasher flicks like Copycat feature two women—one the victim, the other the avenger. The sleazy Eye for an Eye takes this even further: The victim is a teenage girl who’s raped and murdered, and the avenger is her mother.

Karen and Mac McCann (Sally Field and Ed Harris) and their two daughters live in the sort of opulent L.A. suburb that Hollywood movies frequently mistake for middle-class. (Eye’s TV ad breathlessly warns that “they thought they’d be safe when they moved to the suburbs,” but the film offers no hint that they’ve ever lived anywhere but the suburbs.) After a prologue that shows Karen to be a competent, compassionate mom who (literally) wouldn’t hurt a bug—and exploits a little O.J. trial footage—Eye cuts right to its defining event: Julie, the couple’s older daughter, is assaulted and slain in the family’s upscale home. To maximize this scene’s slasher-porn appeal without risking an NC-17 rating, most of it is presented in audio only; Karen is talking to Julie on her cell phone, and so can hear the attack but can do nothing to stop it. Caught in traffic, she jumps from her car and frantically seeks help, but her fellow motorists ignore her.

This setup is so diabolical that it almost seems noteworthy, but afterwards things become routine. Detective Dinello (Joe Mantegna) soon calls to say the police have arrested a suspect, one Robert Doob (Kiefer Sutherland, taking maximum advantage of the creepiness he usually tries to hide). This is not an ordinary suspect, either: He’s guilty and the film makes no effort to hide it. The American legal system is not so well-informed as the Eye audience, however. Charges against the sneering Doob are dropped when the prosecutors bungle the evidential procedure.

Outraged and obsessed, Karen begins to stalk the stalker. Soon, she’s identified Doob’s next target, but neither the police nor the putative victim’s husband want to hear about it. After her hunch comes true and Doob walks free again, Karen discovers that her local survivors-of-violence support group is a cover for a modern-day Star Chamber. Two bitter members of the group offer to prepare her to shoot Doob, cautioning her that she’ll have to pull the trigger herself. (If only The Crossing Guard’s Jack Nicholson character had gone to that film’s support group, maybe he would have met someone who’d have provided him with a more reliable gun.)

Though Mac expresses some doubts about his wife’s new role as a vigilante, the movie doesn’t credit them. Indeed, the issue seems to be less moral than logistical: not should Karen shoot Doob, but how will she pull it off? Though the supporting cast features such up-to-date characters as a black lesbian FBI agent, there’s none of the nuance of Dead Man Walking. In Eye, there are simply amoral predators, impotent cops, and the occasional mom who’s gutsy enough to smuggle her daughter out of Tehran—no, wait, wrong Sally Field gutsy-mom movie.

Derived from Erika Holzer’s novel by scripters Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa, Eye was directed by John Schlesinger, a gone-Hollywood Brit whose résumé reveals a distressing slide from Billy Liar; Sunday, Bloody Sunday; and Midnight Cowboy to Honky Tonk Freeway, Pacific Heights, and The Innocent. Despite his waning taste in material, Schlesinger remains a skilled director. With a script like this one, though, that hardly matters. In Eye, everything—revenge, justice, thrills—comes cheap. CP