The Last Castle (2001)

D: Rod Lurie
S: Robert Redford, James Gandolfini

It has been a long time since Brubaker, even longer since Cool Hand Luke. The Last Castle is a watchable prison flick replete with all the creaks and clichés, but which takes itself a little too seriously for something this formulaic. Decorated General Robert Redford is sent to a fortified military prison where in spite of an attempt to stay aloof, he is drawn into a contest of wills with warden James Gandolfini (The Man Who Wasn't There). Because the entire prison population are ex-soldiers, the drama revolves around whether or not these men have lost their right to think of themselves as 'more' than civilians: proud warriors fallen from grace but not entirely bereft of dignity. Fanciful metaphors about medieval castle-building and besieging techniques evoke symbolic associations between this battle and the history of military conflict.

Essentially this is the old genre staple of rebellion against authority in a setting defined by rigid hierarchical structures and clear boundaries between 'us' and 'them'. The problem is that in this particular case, there is not much to choose between the sides. The 'rebellion' by these soldiers represents little more than a contestation between two slightly variant degrees of the same ideology. It becomes a matter of operations: who is the better commander given a specific set of circumstances? References to the history of military conflict do little to ennoble the venture. So what if a castle is a castle regardless of what century it's in? The point is an obvious one, but one the film never tires of making. Yes, it is a case of finding out who the 'king' is. What the film is not canny enough to note is that the fate of the 'free' men who fight in the king's name is rarely of more than logistical interest to the king himself.

Amid the usual plethora of prison flick staples are some miscellaneous details specific to the military setting. Yet it fails to impress in depth and detail, and lacks the edge of a film like The Hill in depicting the slippage of moral and ethical boundaries between inmates and guards. It also fails to question the broader societal threads which shape the identities of both (as masculinity and British Imperialism were questioned in The Hill). Instead it retreads many of the themes of recent war films in saluting military heroism and self-sacrifice in the name of goals defined by people and causes 'greater' than those who fight for them. The soldier is important, yes, but the cause is moreso. It is an acceptable argument on its own terms, of course, but one longs to see a sense of irony or at least self-awareness which the presence of former democratic idealist Redford would seem to suggest.

Scenes revolving around the nature of the warrior ethos fail to make a distinction between the so called 'animals' inside and their captors. Scenes of military bonding on the inside do not differ substantially from comparable scenes in military dramas set in boot camp or the like. This raises some unsettling questions which the film itself fails to address. Like Abel Fererra's ill-fated remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there is a sense of pointlessness to it, as if the setting is self-defeating as an illustration of these themes. The uneasiness is compounded when the genre staples are then played with the certainty that they will get the audience on the side of the inmates (or more specifically, Redford). Just what are we rooting for here, and is there any space for a radical or even marginally critical reading of contemporary American political identity?

With such a hollow core, it is difficult for director Rod Lurie (The Contender) to do much other than mount each scene with as much conviction as he can muster. The film does work superficially, measuring its pace in a way which suggests depth where none is present. This allows the audience sufficient introduction to the key pieces and pawns before they are put to use. The film gets livelier in its final quarter, though it also becomes more unlikely. In spite of the care with which the metaphor has been set up, it is hard to swallow the lo-tech overthrow of the hi-tech incarceration techniques of the modern military. There are also a number of twists and contrivances which seem more to do with screenwriting 101 than the internal logic of the film, not to mention a couple of 'hi-octane' moments which are completely at odds with the tone of the film in the first three quarters.

It is not really so much of a problem that it goes to pieces in its final scenes though, because the film on the whole never sits comfortably anyway. Redford and Gandolfini give it some dignity, but the former does little more than stiff-lip his way through and the latter, though very good, is given a character too riddled with simplistic psychological characterisation to be believable.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.