The Last Castle
review by Gregory Avery, 26 October 2001

At the beginning of The Last Castle, Rod Lurie's latest abuse-of-power drama, Robert Redford tells us that the military prison where his character is being sent for incarceration is a castle much like any other from olden times, only this one isn't built to keep people out, but to keep people in. Then it's really not a castle, I responded, but never mind. The movie has already whooshed us along to the next scene.

We're in the office of the prison commandant, Col. Winter (James Gandolfini), whom we are supposed to instantly dislike because he's listening to the wrong classical music (Antonio Salieri), asks Redford's character, former General Irwin, if he'd like a glass of lemonade, then hits on him for an autograph. When Winter overhears Irwin saying that the colonel is collecting war memorabilia in order to compensate for a lack of experience in real combat, that's it:  the war of wills has begun.

The prisoner population is immediately identified as a rabbling, scabrous lot who are not only prone to, but encouraged to commit, acts of violence amongst each other, but the dignified, reflective Irwin quickly wins over allies, including a soft-spoken doctor (Frank Military), a sneak (Mark Ruffalo), a hulk (Brian Goodwin), and a rubber-faced ex-Marine (Clifton Collins, Jr.) who also has a stutter and is bound to be doomed by the end of the picture. Irwin not only restores the imprisoned servicemen's morale and discipline: they muster and, at one point, spontaneously sing the Marine Corps Hymn. They salute the decommissioned Irwin without breaking the prison policy against prisoners saluting other prisoners. (This "secret salute" consists of a hand-passing-over-one's-hair motion that looks like something George Raft would do while performing the bolero with Carole Lombard.) Winter's response to all this is to, of course, do everything he could possibly do to rile up the men even more than they already are. By the time another general, Wheeler (Delroy Lindo), shows up to pay a visit to his old friend Irwin (the guy who put "a star" on Wheeler's dress uniform shoulder), then wags his finger at Winter and says that if one more, just one more prisoner dies under his command at the facility....

I could go on. Suffice to say that everything you think will happen does, only much later than the film telegraphs us as to when it will actually occur. Why is Redford's character incarcerated at a maximum-security prison for violent inmates? For a while, it looks like we'll never find out, but we do, an hour and a half in -- even though it's anticlimactic, the movie's gotta hold out on something in order to keep us in some sort of state of anticipation. What Irwin did does not change our opinion of his being an exemplifier of virtue, nor does it add any complexity or dimension to his character. This is the type of movie where he wins the respect of others completely by toting rocks across the prison yard. (And, fear not, Redford did do some body toning before appearing in the film.)

Mark Ruffalo, who was a knockout in You Can Count on Me, is given little to do until almost the end of the picture (although he does the best he can with what little he's got). As Col. Winter, James Gandolfini, who gave one of the best performances of the year in the otherwise tremendously disappointing The Mexican, proves once again that all that talk about his work in The Sopranos was not bunk. He refuses to play the commandant as either an easily contemptible effete or brute; he refuses to allow us to have any pat reactions to his character, but turns him into something more tantalizing, troubling, fatalistic, and dangerous than if he has simply settled back upon playing him as a stock type. Gandolfini generates interest in his character right up to the very end, by which time the rest of the picture, which ostensibly started coming apart at the seams five minutes in, has completely unraveled. The performance may be better than the picture, but the picture would be utterly sunk without it.

Directed by:
Rod Lurie

Starring:
Robert Redford
James Gandolfini
Mark Ruffalo
Clifton Collins, Jr.
Delroy Lindo

Written by:
David Scarpa
 Graham Yost

Rated:
R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
accompanying parent
or adult guardian..

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