Judge Daryl Loomis has mommy issues. He's been grounded since seventh grade.
He's trapped in his own worst nightmare.
Controversial Hollywood wunderkind Derek Plato (Julian McMahon, Nip/Tuck) has started production on his new, ultra-realistic prison film and goes to an abandoned Tennessee penitentiary to scout locations. A total jerk, Derek treats everyone around him like dirt. He promptly sends the rep from the film commission off in a weepy huff and starts scrounging around the halls alone. Soon, he is assaulted by a hooded figure and thrown into a cell. His jailer (Elias Koteas, The Thin Red Line) is a creep who keeps asking Derek questions about his "early work." The more Derek cooperates and the deeper he delves into his past, the closer he comes to escaping this hell.
Derek Plato has owned a camera since he can remember. Even when he was young, he had a vision of in-your-face realism. The obsession with intense sex and violence in his films draws plenty of criticism, but it also fuels his popularity. This misanthropic image serves him well, allowing him to carelessly be an ass to everyone. However, it doesn't suit him so well, when he's thrown in a cell. Forced to play nice, Derek finds himself better equipped to dive into his memories and get to the heart of the matter: mommy.
The best thing Prisoner has going for it are the performances. Nearly the entire picture is McMahon and Koteas playing off of one another, and they work great together. McMahon, as the prisoner, plays a hero whose attitude makes him hard to like. Koteas, on the other hand, has imprisoned this guy and is the clear villain. Yet, even when drugging Derek's food and putting him through hell, he doesn't comes across near the jerk his prisoner does. This strange relationship suits the actors well. The dialog is above average and both performers play the material with a lot of zest. Most of the film takes place in near darkness through the bars of a prison cell door, but their performances move the story along without making it seem stagey (though it would make an excellent stage production). While Tom Guiry is funny, in his bit role as the commission representative, the supporting characters are non-entities, only there to nudge the plot with some backstory, before returning to the prison and the two principal characters.
The effectiveness of McMahon and Koteas is due in part to the way the film is written, though not in how the story plays out. The writing and directing duo of David Alford and Robert Lynn do two things very well: they keep the focus narrow and the time short. The shocking twist is anything but a surprise, but that's not a problem. The rest of the film is solid enough that, even if it moves stepwise to its expected conclusion, the ride is engaging. Prisoner moves well because the filmmakers never bog themselves down in subplots or basic character motivations. The mercifully short runtime ensures the film can't drift off into unnecessary details which can easily convolute the story. With a skeleton of a plot, the actors are free to work their magic. I can easily recommend it based on their work alone.
Though this is a bare bones disc, MPI has done a reasonable job with the release. A low-budget affair, the image has some persistent grain and the coloring seems a little off. However, the detail in the darkness, which takes up most of the film, is outstanding. The actors' bodies are barely visible, but there's just enough light to see motion and facial expressions. The sound is also very good, though it is a front-loaded, dialogue-heavy mix. The surround speakers do get some work, with clanking metal and dripping pipes, for an immersive overall mix. The only extra is a trailer, but the technical details somewhat make up for it.
Prisoner is short and sweet, a focused, no-frills thriller. The plot may not be particularly original or shocking, but the excellent performances and terse storytelling make up for it. This is an above average genre entry that is definitely worth a rental.
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