'Papillon' Review: A Brutal Tale Is Played a Little Too Safe Directed by Michael Noer
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Rami Malek
Published Aug 22, 2018When Henri "Papillon" Charrière (Charlie Hunnam) is sent to a penal colony in French Guiana, the main thing on his mind is getting out of there. He teams up with Louis Dega (Rami Malek), an artistic, wealthy man poorly equipped to survive prison conditions, and offers protection in exchange for finances. A remake of the 1973 film starring Steve McQueen as Papillon and Dustin Hoffman as Dega, and based on a bestselling memoir, Papillon follows the two men through their time at the penal colony and their efforts to escape it.
By including some of the same graphically violent scenes of the original, the film dives into the unsustainable horror that is prison life. Sombre grey hues convey the location's lifelessness and in unstable, violent moments, frenetic cinematography creates a sense of chaos. The prison warden makes his intention to "break" Papillon explicit, and through constantly bearing witness to trauma and death, it seems that madness or breakdown is imminent.
However, instead of leaning into the darker psychological themes, the film prioritizes the story of the two men's friendship. Initially based on an explicit agreement, prison tests their capacity for loyalty and trust in times of suffering. Both men certainly struggle, becoming visibly weaker and less stable, but maintain a certain stoicism. The film dances around something dark and powerful, but ultimately (and unfortunately) swerves into the more familiar, and generic, territory of strong, loyal men who never give up on freedom. It's by no means a bad story, but it's unsatisfyingly safe in a way that such a brutal tale probably shouldn't be. (Elevation Pictures)