Sister Helen Prejean (Sarandon) is a nun who works with the mainly black poor. When she first visits the Louisiana State Penitentiary, however, she's unprepared for the ethical, emotional and spiritual turmoil which follows. Inmate Matthew Poncelet has requested her help in his appeal against execution. With politicians and radio fundamentalists advocating tougher measures, the chances of a stay of execution are slim for an unrepentant white-trash racist who insists he only watched, rather than participated in, the rape and murder of a teenage couple. If his appeal fails, will Helen have the strength not merely to continue as his spiritual adviser, but to guide her arrogant, hate-filled charge towards some sort of redemption? Though it finally takes a firm stand against institutionalised murder, director Robbins' tough, balanced script (from an autobiographical book) never succumbs to special pleading. Poncelet is a very nasty piece of work (superbly played by Penn with bouffant hair and goatee), while the vengeful grief of the victims' families is depicted with sympathy and respect. Though the message is underlined by the questions raised (whose pain, exactly, is the 'humane' method of lethal injection finally intended to diminish?), this brave, intelligent and very moving film is no dry thesis - thanks principally to the vivid excellence of the performances.