Directed by Michael Noer
Who doesn’t like a good ‘ol fashioned prison break movie? Papillon has a little trouble getting in gear, but before you know it the movie, about a French safecracker (Charlie Hunnam) framed for murder, takes flight and never looks back.
Maybe it’s just that I’m right there in the sweet spot to soak up the movie’s charms. It’s an exciting prison break story with heart and a potentially self-indulgent middle section that ruminates on life, time and our own lack of control in where the winds take us, but sh*t that’s my jam.
Parts of this movie reminded me of another Hunnam movie, 2017’s The Lost City of Z. In both stories he plays a single-minded explorer of sorts whose journey we follow through years that quickly pile up. In Papillon we grow accustomed to the pace at which the film is moving, but after a silent sequence showing Henri (‘Papillon’) Charrière suffering in isolation we move two years into the future, and later on the movie uses that sense memory of watching him in isolation to convey the same amount of torture in a single cut, propelling us another five years ahead.
I’m a sucker for these kinds of time jumps, when a single cut between two different shots tells an entire story. We watch as Hunnam grows increasingly frail and his hair ever whitening and scraggly. He becomes a ghost who just hasn’t died yet, and it’s important that we feel the weight of the journey in order to better appreciate the hope he holds onto that escape is still possible.
When the movie opens Henri is a well-dressed, cocksure, charismatic little sh*t. He’s got everything going for him, and because he looks the way he does (and because Hunnam seems to play many characters of this ilk), we buy it. Still, it feels a bit uninspired until the story begins stripping Henri of all his good fortune. In the absence of such success he clings to an optimism that, with each latest setback, feels more heartfelt.
Papillon deconstructs this character type and reveals that his joie de vivre comes from something other than his good fortune. It’s more than just a characteristic, rather a way of living. It’s as ingrained in him as breathing, and it’s that willful eagerness to live that says something broader about what it means to be human, to pursue something in the face of immense adversity.
There is another character in all of this, Louis Dega (Rami Malek). He’s a wealthy man to whom Henri offers his protection in exchange for Dega financing Henri’s escape from prison. Their relationship feels forced at the start, with Henri, a newcomer to this intimidating prison, suddenly acting as the authority to yet a newer newcomer.
Once Henri first goes to prison, it’s meant to seem as though the way we see this harsh world is the same way he sees it. We then imagine he will keep his head down and learn the hard way how to fall in line. This never happens, however, because when Dega shows up Henri acts as though he were a seasoned inmate.
That being said their friendship works quite well. There is a bit of George and Lennie to them as well as a bit of Harry and Marv (Home Alone). Their relationship is purely transactional, but after Henri’s first round in solitary confinement, he demonstrates a deeper appreciation of just about everything in his life, including Dega.
They hatch another escape attempt which goes better than the first. Eventually the guards catch up to him, and Henri chooses to warn his friend rather than ensure his own escape, leading to another five years in solitary. Dega makes sure to acknowledge Henri’s sacrifice.
It all just leads to the final scene, at least before the epilogue, in which they share an embrace that felt quite earned. They both look much different than when we first met them, and the payoff feels sincere after all the time and trouble through which we’ve followed them.
Up Next: High Fidelity (2000), Killing Gunther (2017), Brewster McCloud (1970)