Papillon ★★★★½

Two men bound for a prison colony in French Guyana strike up an unlikely alliance that blossoms into a strong friendship over years together. There are escape attempts, brutal repercussions from guards, and all manner of other trials that will either break their friendship (not to mention their spirits) or forge them into something unbreakable.

"Papillon" has the central framework of "The Shawshank Redemption" but it feels more naturalistic, more authentic, less melodramatic (not that I mind melodrama, and not that these factors necessarily make this a better film than "Shawshank", which I desperately need to revisit one of these days). It's based on a true story, and director Franklin Schaffner, working from a script by Dalton Trumbo(!) and Lorenzo Semple Jr. certainly craft something that feels rooted in reality. I haven't researched whether the filmmakers used the actual locations where this story really happened or not, as Robert Bresson did in making "A Man Escaped", but it certainly feels like it. These don't feel like sets, and they give the movie a grimy immediacy and realism that makes it utterly gripping. When they're on board the ship that takes them to Devil's Island, I felt as though I was right there with them. The shitty rainstorm that the ship gets caught in doesn't feel like it was manufactured in a studio, it feels like something that actually happened and the filmmakers used it. The settings and the atmosphere create a sense of reality, and the dialogue and performances are low key and naturalistic enough to match this.

Okay, Dustin Hoffman is a bit big, but it works. He's supposed to be a well-to-do character so the fact that he doesn't quite act like everyone else actually works for the character. Besides, just because Hoffman is a bit large in his portrayal doesn't mean he isn't good. He certainly is.

But he's not as good as Steve McQueen. I've always admired Steve McQueen. He's one of the coolest dudes in cinema history, but he's never pulled me under the skin of one of his characters as fully as he does here. I was thoroughly rooted in his circumstances. I cared completely about him and was on the edge of my seat whenever he was put in harm's way or into a terrible situation (which happens A LOT). McQueen barely needs to amplify the emotions of his character, as I said the setting and surroundings do a lot to immerse us in the situation. McQueen was always low key and this is no exception. It's a stripped down, more naturalistic version of his character in "The Great Escape", really, and it's fascinating to watch him.

The film isn't quite perfect. It's quite episodic. But those episodes all work really well, and the film flows remarkably well. It's long, but I never felt that length. I was IN this movie, totally involved. I held my breath a few times when things got really suspenseful. I may even have shouted at my screen. The suspense is exemplary. My emotions were completely engaged. I need to research the true story behind this movie now. I recall picking this film up several times during the early days of DVD but I never purchased it. I had almost forgotten about it until I saw it showing on cable a month or so ago and DVR-d it. It wasn't a title that grabbed my attention. But the movie itself is a completely different matter. It isn't quite as grounded in reality as "A Man Escaped", but its characters are much more interesting, much more captivating, and it is naturalistic enough to make the experience of watching it that much more suspenseful, that much more dynamic and immersive.

Steve McQueen was so much more than just "Cool" (though he was so damned cool that this would be more than sufficient to secure his legacy). He's so raw and real here, so vulnerable and fragile at times. The movie uses his "Coolness" and plays wonderfully against it, shattering it at several moments. I need to dive deeper into his filmography. This is one hell of a film.

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