I wonder whom the marketing department thinks a film like "Papillon" is meant for. Clearly expensive to produce, it takes us to penal colonies so bleak, dark and claustrophobic that they drive prisoners insane, and doubtless many viewers, too. It was filmed with impressive care and the performances are good, if you're in the mood for starvation, madness and harsh physical cruelty.
Calling this gritty-as-dirt story of crime, punishment and the unquenchable urge to escape enjoyable is a stretch. Nonetheless, it has been popular. Henri Charrière's supposedly true account of his imprisonment in French Guiana and Devil's Island has sold 13 million copies since its 1969 publications, and the 1973 film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman was a hit.
The actors in this iteration are comfortably at home in their roles. Charlie Hunnam, a sympathetic outlaw in the FX series "Sons of Anarchy" and quite good in last year's "The Lost City of Z," has the title role as Papillon, a tough safecracker framed for murder. Rami Malek, best known as the lead in USA Network's "Mr. Robot," plays wealthy dandy Louis Dega, who faked government defense bonds.
When they are convicted, the French courts banish them to hell off the coast of South America. The insecure Dega, who has never been in captivity, suspects the scum-of-the-earth prisoners who eviscerate his first bodyguard will slit him open, too. That would cause Dega to lose the fortune in currency he has stuffed in his, let's say, back pocket. Papillon steps in between him and the dregs of humanity, protecting Dega for his promise "to underwrite any escape you care to arrange."
That is, to say the least, an uphill struggle. As the warden tells the new inmates, fleeing will result in starving in the forest, being eaten by sharks at sea or recapture and serving an even longer, worse sentence. Still, returning to civilization is Papillon's passion. Dega, in a moment of underplayed humor, calls him an "optimist."
The focus of the story, beyond the procedural aspect of their escape attempts, is the honor between the two thieves that slowly grows into trust. Its an important point that the characters convey through subtle implication. Long before their Titanic-sized prison ship deposits them, it's understood that in this realm any expression of emotion is a sign of weakness and a hard poker face must be worn at all times.
As a result, Humman and Malek don't use much in the way of facial expressions for half of the movie's 136-minute run. They slowly go from "touch me and I'll kill you" ferocity to measured mutual kindness. As their hard-won respect builds, they relax and lighten a bit, just as the oppressive gray palette that opens the film eventually admits sunlight.
Danish director Michael Noer (who has spent most of his career making documentaries) and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski ("Prisoners") considerably polish up the earlier film adaptation, which has not aged at all well. Scenes that are exact parallels play better here, and those that are original add a fresh perspective. The pacing shifts between richly dramatic scenes to more intense and brutal ones. It's solid and effective filmmaking, if melodramatic and occasionally silly.
There are unintended laughs here, mostly at Malek's expense. His character wears his eyeglasses even while asleep. With no explanation, he remains perfectly barbered throughout his decades-long confinement. When Papillon goes mad from starvation (Hunnam shows off his body dieted to almost nothing), he dreams of Dega dancing for him in a carnival-worthy mime's costume and whiteface makeup that is pure Marcel Marceau.
If they wanted to create a "Brokeback Mountain" subtext, fine, but why underline it 10 times? What we have here is a platonic bromance between men who have been away from women for a long, long time, and at times the film doesn't know how to deal with that. One of the most problematic episodes involves a planned attack on a gay turnkey prisoner who is lured into a quickie by a young accomplice of Papillon. What that was intended to add to the story is beyond me.
With puzzlers like that, "Papillon" is a memorable film that's not fun to watch. Is it worth checking out? Possibly. I don't know whom it's made for. Maybe it doesn't, either.
★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: R for violence including bloody images, language, nudity and some sexual material.