Brian Cox & Kate Beckinsale Can’t Save Catherine Hardwicke’s Frustrating Family Misfire [TIFF]
Dec 13, 2022
Las Vegas, with its casinos and boiling 100+ temperatures, has long been an alluring setting for stories about broken people seeking redemption. The ghosts of organized crime past seem to haunt the Nevada desert, still populated by casino rats, showgirls, and washed-up athletes. And so it is an apt setting for “Prisoner’s Daughter.” This family drama from Catherine Hardwicke (“Twilight”) with a screenplay by Mark Bacci (“Northern Rescue”) stars Brian Cox (“Succession”) as Max, a one-time boxer turned enforcer dying of pancreatic cancer who’s been released from prison after 12 years on compassionate release on the sole condition that he stays with his estranged daughter Maxine (Kate Beckinsale, “Underworld”).
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Max has been in and out of prison all of Maxine’s life and has been described by his friend Hank (Ernie Hudson, “Ghostbusters”) as “very bad” when the sick man tells him he can no longer remember what kind of guy he once was. Having spent his latest stint in prison getting sober and helping others get sober, Max seeks atonement for his sins, though does not expect forgiveness. Cox is as electric as ever. Max does his best to subdue his internal rage in favor of the Zen-like peace of a man who can see the finish line while he attempts to reconnect with his daughter and her 12-year-old son Ezra (Christopher Convery, “On the Verge”).
Beckinsale, who sounds like every keno waitress I’ve ever had during my childhood trips to Reno, plays Maxine as if she’s never taken a full breath in her life. In a show-stopping monologue, Maxine admonishes Max for showing up now and finally wanting to be a father and keep promising long broken, when throughout her childhood, she had to be there for her alcoholic mother, watching her drink herself to death. She had to go to school hungry and find ways to pay bills. This speech could easily slip into treacly melodrama, but Beckinsale finds the raw humanity at the center of Maxine. This is a good woman who’s been dealt a bad hand from the jump, doing the best she can to move past her childhood traumas so her son won’t “turn out like her.”
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However, in the characterization of the precocious Ezra, it’s hard not to think of Mimi Leder’s “Pay It Forward” in which Haley Joel Osment also plays a 12-year-old kid who’s bullied at school and balances living in Vegas with a harried mom (Helen Hunt) who works multiple jobs to support them. Many of the beats in Bacci’s script, especially Ezra’s hard time at school and his overly smart demeanor, are wholly lifted from that earlier film. However, Convery crafts a wonderful rapport with Beckinsale, filled with familial humor and prickly tension. As Ezra bonds with his grandfather and Max teaches him how to fight, his disgusted reaction to his own violence is fascinating, yet always leaves open the possibility that the apple might not fall that far from the tree.
As a millennial who can’t help but love the mid-2000s hitmakers The All-American Rejects, I, for one, love that Hardwicke has cast lead singer Tyson Ritter in two of her last three films. He really just has perfected the artsy dirtbag look. Ritter plays Tyler, Maxine’s ex, and Ezra’s father. A one-time musician, now struggling addict with a violent temper, Maxine spends much of the film keeping him at bay and dealing with the aftermath of his violent outbursts, while Ezra can’t stop begging to see him. For the most part, there is some nuance here as Maxine understands the pull Tyler has on his son and the love that never goes away, no matter how bad a parent is. Given Max’s background in helping fellow inmates get sober, there seemed like an elegant way to tie these beats together. Max’s redemption could be to end the cycle of violence in this family forever and help one more person get clean before he checks out for good.
Unfortunately, that is not how this film decides to end its story. The choices made in the third act give the actors big moments but strand the characters in the land of inanity. From the start, Max and his fellow prisoners were treated as real people, with compassion for their situations. Why, then, does Tyler, whose violence is just as bad as Max’s was (though, unlike Max, he’s never been paid to hurt anyone) and whose issues with addiction mirror his, not deserve the same grace? There’s also something hinky about the way the script positions prison as a great place to get clean, without any sort of hint that harm reduction services for civilians is also an option for those dealing with addiction.
While most of the film’s issues are found at the script level, for her part Hardwicke has always been a great actors director, guiding her performers along the tightrope line of rawness and ridiculousness that her films often walk. Her camera always follows them naturally around the frame. Her preference for close-ups gives her actors big moments, even when the acting is subtle. If only the script could have treated these characters with the same care.
Despite compelling turns from Cox and Beckinsale, “Prisoner’s Daughter” is a frustrating misfire, undone by its unfortunate scripting in the third act. It comes so close to being something transcendent that it feels like it should be set in Reno, not Vegas, where everything looks just like it does in Sin City, but with a lesser sheen, with the same false veneer, but cracks more readily showing through. Yet, even in Reno, people live their lives with more courage of their convictions than this. [C+]
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