2004, R, 90 min. Directed by Brett C. Leonard. Starring Stephen Adly Guirgis, Michael Pitt, Laila Robins, David Zayas.
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., Aug. 18, 2006
There’s nothing else in town quite like this low-budget, indie prison movie, which played the Austin Film Festival in 2004. Born from a stage play and shot over nine days in the Bronx House of Detention, this two-character study isn’t for every taste. It’s stagebound and stiff – partly because the two-man story calls for a claustrophobic setting, but partly because of too-harsh lighting and an awkward high-angle tilt recurring in the tense moments between Jake (Guirgis) and his new cellmate, Randy (Pitt). The film begins with Randy’s incarceration for a three-strikes felony rap. He’s not a violent criminal – he has two pot convictions and another for vandalism in excess of $5,000 – and he makes 25 years of fresh meat for Jake, doing life without parole for killing his wife. The movie wastes absolutely no time in establishing the balance of power between Jake and Randy, who fall lockstep into dominant and submissive roles. Leonard and his cast are veterans of New York’s LAByrinth Theatre Company, and while they’re not exactly sure what to do with the camera besides pointing it at whoever’s talking, they display an extraordinary grasp of filmmaking’s thespian aspect: the timing of scenes, the use of silence and pauses, marking each emotional beat in a scene clearly but finely. Though Leonard’s dialogue is overwritten at times, his actors wrestle it and win. Pitt’s contemplative stare is familiar to Hedwig fans – he’s Tommy Gnosis from the movie – but I was entirely skeptical of Guirgis. He’s styled to look like Ron Jeremy, greasy and pudgy and probably pathetic except that his Jake can turn on a dime and brutalize his new “friend” so fiercely, verbally and physically, that Randy’s spirit is almost entirely broken. A twist midway through the film, however, suggests Randy’s complicity. Heavy stuff, man. The stage origins are simply everywhere, but this debut feature is so fantastically acted that it inspires indulgence of its first-timers’ mistakes. Leonard draws out a scene between Randy and his mother (Robins) well beyond what is necessary to establish mood and move the plot, leaving her alone in the room with her grief for a wordless minute or two. It’s a striking moment, typical of Leonard’s apparent willingness to give his actors room and quiet. For venturesome viewers, Jailbait would make a potent late-summer palate cleanser in preparation for festival season, even if you wouldn’t make a meal of it.