January 15, 1996 12:00 PM

Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn

Cry for us all. That’s what you’ll do by the end of this harrowing film based on a true story of a Roman Catholic nun (Sarandon) who befriends a convicted murderer (Penn) about to meet his Maker. By revealing how this nun finds the courage to bring Penn to terms with the enormity of his transgression—murdering a teenage couple after first raping the girl—director (and Sarandon companion) Tim Rob-bins makes one giant leap from his first film, 1992’s slim political satire Bob Roberts.

But Dead Man is more than a tale of redemption. Robbins’s finely crafted script, adapted from Sister Helen Pre-jean’s 1993 book of the same name, looks at crime and punishment from multiple viewpoints. The anguish suffered by everyone—the doomed killer, the lawyer trying to save him, the parents of his victims and the nun who listens to and hears them all—is wrenchingly real.

Sarandon wears almost no makeup but shines with an inner radiance. Penn, moving from defiance to remorse, is her match. But what makes Dead Man so haunting is that it doesn’t presume to answer all of the questions it raises. As Sarandon tells Penn when he finally comprehends the immensity of his act, “There are spaces of sorrow only God can touch.” (R)

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