Prison is the best place from which to contemplate freedom: you see it whole as if it were another planet. No wonder so many prison movies, especially French ones, are existential dramas, adventures in action and philosophy set in an off-world dimension of the mind. Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet () rounds up the classic conundrums – “what is freedom?”; “what is non-freedom?”; “does jail have its own liberty and normal life its shackles?” – and adds some of its own. These address the tensions of a multi-race, multi-creed world and ask: “Is life under lock-and-key an exact, if microcosmic, reflection of life outside?” If so, is it, perversely, a perfect education for the man with the right mindset?
Add a thriller plot that keeps our pulses racing like a Grand National winner’s – over a 2½-hour course strewn with shrewdly designed obstacles – and no wonder the film has cleaned up awards, starting with last year’s Cannes Grand Jury Prize. A Prophet is a 21st-century filmgoer’s Huis Clos. We are in hell, earthly variety, and an immaculately ordered one. The prison’s ethnic population is cleanly divided into rival factions (Arab and Corsican); the ground rules for staying alive are laid out in black and white, like a chessboard. Malik (Tahar Rahim, resembling a young Che Guevara), a 19-year-old Muslim, starts as a pawn, but moves up through the pieces. His talent is to outplay, one by one, his betters.
The prison’s godfather, a Corsican, is played with a silken seigneurialism worthy of Brando by Niels Arestrup (the father in Audiard’s last crime humdinger, The Beat That My Heart Skipped). Arestrup uses Malik as an errand boy and hitman – here a fellow convict to have his throat slit, there a collecting job on the outside for which Malik will get a day’s leave – until the youngster begins to reverse the roles.
Audiard matches the slippery, protean story with a slippery, protean technique. Call it invisible expressionism. Every cinematic trick is played: iris shots, colour changes, hallucination scenes. Yet none of these, even the slain cellmate’s return as Malik’s ghost companion (exhaling cigarette smoke through the slit in his throat), seem to jar the reality. Why? Because the story hugs us so close in its coils. (It was co-scripted by Abdel Raouf Dafri, who designed the mazes of Mesrine.) Why again? Because everything is organic, not applied. The convulsions of style, however extreme, grow out of the disorders of the characters and their tale.
The hero educates himself, as he survives, by destroying and consuming. That which does not kill him makes him strong. The impassive, beguiling justice of the story is written on Malik’s impassive, handsome face. This is a moral movie set in an immoral world, one of those circle-squaring feats at which French drama and cinema so darkly excel. NA
The Boys Are Back () is an adaptation of a memoir by the British journalist Simon Carr, with real life tweaked by the screenwriter Allan Cubitt. The Carr character has been renamed Joe Warr. He works as a sports correspondent in Australia rather than as a political reporter and speechwriter in New Zealand. Instead of being average and dad-looking, he is played by Clive Owen, who does his best to appear dowdy and down-to-earth in a uniform of linen, denim and stubble.
After Warr’s wife (Laura Fraser) dies of cancer, he is charged with raising their young son (Nicholas McAnulty). To minimise difficulties, he adopts a policy of “just say yes”, egged on by ghostly visitations. The narrative proceeds by immersion rather than exposition. Details arise organically as the drama unfolds, rather than through dialogue of the “you already know this, but in case you forgot … ” variety. So the viewer is in the rare and welcome position of playing catch-up. It emerges that Warr left his first English wife for the second Australian one, and has a neglected son at boarding school (George MacKay). This initially moody child comes to stay for the film’s second half, and the three form a messy, makeshift family. The film is a convincing portrait of the stress of single parenthood. Owen does well in a tricky role. I could watch him all day, and after The Boys Are Back, I felt like I had.
Jim Sheridan directed In the Name of the Father, about the Guildford Four – wrongly imprisoned for an IRA bombing – and he is back in the “based on a true trauma” neighbourhood with his new film Brothers () . As the title hints, the relationship here is fraternal rather than paternal. Sam (Tobey Maguire) is a marine who goes to fight in Afghanistan and never returns. Back home, his misfit, ex-con brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) cosies up to his supposedly widowed sister-in-law (Natalie Portman), renovating her kitchen with his waster friends and looking after her two daughters. But it turns out that Sam is alive, just about. We discover this long before the other characters, and wince as things get intimate back in the military town. There is much backbiting between the misfit brother and the stern military father (Sam Shepard), and a moment
of excruciating dinner-time truth-telling from the older daughter. The result, wavering between intensity and bombast, is part Eugene O’Neill, part topical TV movie.
Armored () also concerns the struggles of a young man recently returned from a tour of duty – in Iraq, this time – but unlike Brothers it contains some decent truck chases. Ty is a decorated veteran with a pile of debts, a job driving for a security firm, and a sense of morality. When his colleagues suggest faking a robbery and keeping the loot, the good soldier agrees – so long as no one gets hurt. But people do get hurt, and Ty has blood on his hands, which the camera obligingly shows us in close-up.
Ty is played by the up-and-coming Columbus Short; his villainous colleagues are played by down-and-outs such as Matt Dillon, Laurence Fishburne and Jean Reno. So it is obvious who will win out, although there is a lot of fun to be had seeing how. Things are jollied along by some very stiff acting, especially from Dillon. The film, shot in crisp widescreen, is surprisingly pleasant to look at. It is also surprisingly restrained, most of it taking place in an abandoned warehouse, and in real time. The effect is reminiscent of Pinter – only with explosions rather than pauses.
Despite the addition of 3D, Toy Story 2 () is a little rusty – all that guff about getting along, all those jokes about how toys won’t be toys. During the decade since the film’s release, Monsters Inc, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Up have come along to show us what digital animation can really do.
Pixar specialises in creating fully imagined worlds. It also specialises in maddening “meanwhile … ” narratives. In this one, Woody (Tom Hanks) is held captive by a toy-shop owner who wants to sell him to a Japanese museum. Meanwhile, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and friends brave a perilous journey to save him. You spend most of the time trying to identify the famous voices, and removing and replacing your 3D glasses to work out if it’s a con.
The motive for this reissue is unlikely to stir much warm feeling. It is preceded by a two-minute trailer for Toy Story 3, coming to a screen near you this July. Hunger for the forthcoming sequel generates money for this reissue – which is in turn designed to increase excitement, and profits, for the forthcoming sequel. It’s a Cash-22. LR