Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Lock Up

(Tom Shandel, 1984)
A principled (not to say earnest) synthesis of B-movie dramatics and liberal reformism, this based-on-a-true-story prison film depicts solitary confinement as the anchoring method in an arsenal of psychological torture enacted by jailers against their inmates. It's remarkably disorienting when the camera dollies past the upstairs cells and we perceive their scant natural light and paltry personal effects as beacons of liberty. The depictions of cruelty and mental degeneration ring true, and the office drama surrounding Andree Pelletier's social worker provides counterpoint and context. But extending the prisoners' revolt and hostage taking to a full half hour at film's end was a big mistake. Coming after the intimate claustrophobia of the prison cells, the altercation in the office feels scattershot and peculiarly remote - instead of reversing power dynamics, the convicts are largely left menacing a new assortment of relatively innocent bystanders. It is also at this point that the film loses its generic balance and becomes a series of philosophical counterassertions on justice and violence, rather than illustrating these assertions through dramatic action - aside from the comings and goings of lawyer Alan Scarfe, there's barely any movement at all. And while the film's analysis could survive a kinetic narrative, it dies when it's held up to the light: everyone suddenly starts delivering over-pronounced position statements that sound like they're coming from overly schematic scriptwriters, not characters. And these failings confirm your lingering doubts about the bad-apples institutional theory, not to mention lead con Winston Rekert's far-fetched banquet speech - better on problems than solutions, as usual.

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