Jailbait (2004)

[18 April 2007]

By Brian Holcomb

There is a real Catch-22 with shooting a movie set in a prison cell. While the director can be said to have done his job well by confining the audience for long periods of time in the same claustrophobic space with the actors, it’s also clear that this is far from entertaining. After all, it’s a prison cell! How many of us want to spend two hours stuck there, even vicariously?  Well, Jailbait, locks us up there and throws away the key.

It’s really not much fun watching the non drama of our hero Randy (Michael Pitt) staring at the walls and keeping the hands of the more brutish Jake from clawing up his skirt. Randy is a petty, small time criminal who falls victim to the “three strikes, you’re out” California state law. A little bit of vandalism lands him a 25-year sentence in the aforementioned cell. Jake is a lifer. He’s exactly what you expect in a prison picture: a foul mouthed, violent, bad-tempered and manipulative murderer who cannot stop talking. This is the kind of hell that Sartre conjured up. One where the talking was worse than the sodomy.

Jake doesn’t begin with rape, however. He spends a little bit of time seducing his prey. He does this by taking the young man under his wing, and teaching him the basic principles of prison life. Don’t keep calendars, educate the mind through reading and keep the body strong through exercise. Jake also builds intimacy by telling Randy about how he cut his cheating wife’s throat three months after they were married. If that won’t charm the pretty young man, nothing will.

Fortunately for viewers, the long looming sexual subjugation occurs off-screen. This is not merely a “tasteful” way to handle an unpleasant matter, it also enhances a major theme of the film involving sexual identity.  Jake explains to Randy that he doesn’t consider his homosexual acts to be homosexual at all since it’s what he imagines in his mind that defines his sexuality not the act itself. He talks about the best sex he’s had and it’s all about women. Quite chauvinistic, yes, but clearly hetero. Randy uses this against Jake later by claiming that the best sex he’s ever had was with Jake. The off-screen ambiguity builds a strong tension here that would be non-existent if dramatized.

Jailbait is a character drama, pure and simple, and depends heavily on the skills of the actors to pull it off. As he demonstrated in both Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers and as the Kurt Cobain based musician in Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, Pitt proves to be very comfortable in the role of the introverted and quietly intense young man. He is the audience’s surrogate in this drama, innocently being drawn into the realities of prison life. Pitt conveys more of his character through silence and stillness than the flat dialogue.

Stephen Adly Guirgis certainly has the flashier role, doing most of the talking and threatening. But this is the kind of obvious role that forces an actor into a corner, dramatically. When an actor has to appear sinister, the choices are often reduced to alternations of whispering and shouting. It’s a tired concept and the result is that Guirgis comes off much less effectively than Pitt but clearly that’s as much the weakness of the screenplay as with his own craft.

Screenwriter and director Brett C. Leonard is a playwright by day and has worked with Guirgis many times off- Broadway in the highly respected LAByrinth Theater Company. Guinea Pig Solo and Roger and Vanessa are two of his more notable works. He makes his film debut here, shooting Jailbait in nine days in digital video. What he doesn’t succeed at doing here is transferring his concepts from the stage to the screen.

All one need do is watch Roman Polanski’s film version of Ariel Dorfman’s play, Death and the Maiden, to understand how a director can stick to the theatrical script and yet transform the play into cinema. Polanski keeps the action within tight confines and yet makes use of sound, atmosphere, blocking, camera movement and editing to build tension cinematically. You never think twice whether or not the film was based on a play. It simply doesn’t matter. But here it does matter. Here, the lack of a strong directorial presence sinks a possibly worthwhile film. It’s not enough to just turn the camera on and point it at the actors. No matter how good they are, without a sense of visual storytelling, the movie will fall apart.

Jailbait played the festival circuit in 2004 and has taken quite a while to reach DVD. But DVD might be the perfect home for this tightly framed minimalist film. The DVD release is bare bones but the transfer itself is fairly decent for a film with many dark scenes. There are no extras and unfortunately, no “Get out of Jail” free card.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/jailbait-2004/