The film begins with acclaimed General Irwin (Robert Redford) being transported to a military prison for violent criminals. The warden, Colonel Winter (James Gandolfini), rules the prison with an iron fist, but shows compassion and respect for General Irwin, one of his personal heroes. Some of these opening scenes involve Irwin arriving at the prison in a bus. For those of you acquainted with The Shawshank Redemption these scenes will seem very familiar. Remember the prisoners who placed bets on Andy? Well, those same gamblers are present here, eagerly making bets on when the general will commit suicide. From this point on, The Last Castle follows a fairly predictable pattern: scene from a famous film that has been slightly changed, predictable story, clichéd character development, another scene from a famous film that has been slightly altered. In the end the film plays like a cross between The Shawshank Redemption, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Cool Hand Luke and Face/Off and offers little new material for the prison film genre.
Most of the film deals with the transformation of the two main characters. Slowly, Colonel Winter changes from a seemingly nice warden who is a little strict into a cruel, vindictive monster. On the other side of the prison bars, General Irwin gradually changes from a passive observer of prison violence into the inmates’ one last chance at salvation. Throw in the compulsory estranged daughter and the usual assortment of martyrs and you have a script that is about as derivative as they come. In fact, its only saving grace is that it actually contains some unexpectedly humorous scenes.
This is director Rod Lurie’s third film, following the little seen Deterrence and last year’s critically acclaimed yet ultimately hypocritical The Contender, and it is easily his most visually ambitious film yet. While his previous two films have been dialogue- oriented, The Last Castle involves many action sequences, which Lurie handles well. However, for most of the rest of the film Lurie is much too heavy-handed. The prison movies that truly succeed have characters that win us over, and elicit emotional responses naturally. The Last Castle is not the least bit subtle. There seem to be few levels to which Lurie and writer David Scarpa won’t sink in order to wring some emotional response out of the audience. These attempts are not skillful and the result is that many scenes that are supposed to be emotional and touching come off as somewhat comical (one such scene involves an inmate who is required to salute for hours on end in the pouring rain). The same can be said for much of the finale, which asks the audience to suspend its disbelief a little too frequently.
Both Redford and Gandolfini are quite good in their respective roles, and many of the best scenes in the film are simply both actors talking together. Alas, as the script makes them archetypes instead of three-dimensional characters, their performances ultimately feel hollow. The only other character that is somewhat fleshed out is that of inmate Yates (Mark Ruffalo), the prison’s designated bookie. After giving one of last year’s best performances in You Can Count on Me, I was very interested in seeing Ruffalo in a new role. Once again, he gives a solid performance, but one wishes he had better material to work with. Ultimately, his story arch is quite predictable, but his acting keeps the audience interested. It is also worth mentioning that Jerry Goldsmith contributes another very good score to this film, which, most of the time, is actually more moving than what is on screen.
In the end, despite its good qualities, The Last Castle doesn’t work simply because the audience is always two or three steps ahead of the characters. General Irwin may not know that he will save the prison, but the audience does. Everyone in the prison may question Yate’s true motives, but the audience knows well beforehand how things will turn out. In fact, in response to most of the film, audiences will no doubt be yelling Gandolfini’s oft-repeated phrase, “Yes, I know,” pleading with the film to move along or show us something new. Unfortunately, no one appears to be listening.
The Last Castle