I can’t quite tell you why I was so excited for Papillon when I first saw the trailer for it a few months ago. I only found out after I had begun to anticipate it that it was actually a remake of a 1973 film by the same name, which in turn was based off a book of the same name, which was, in fact, a memoir from Henri Charrière (now played by Charlie Hunnam) whose nickname was, you guessed it – Papillon. I felt a bit silly for not knowing any of this beforehand, considering the original film starred Steve McQueen in the titular role, and Dustin Hoffman in the supporting role of Louie Dega (replaced in the new film by Rami Malek). Still, I enjoyed the fact that the only reason I had originally become excited for the film was because it seemed like a classically fun prison escape film, something that has been missing from the stack of summer blockbusters for the last few years. I became intrigued with the idea of going into this film completely blind, so as to not spend the entire runtime comparing and contrasting it to its predecessor. Instead, I could see it the way I had when I first saw the trailer: As a new and exciting prison escape genre action film starring two actors I’ve always enjoyed. If you go into this film having been a fan of the original, or having read the book for that matter, I’m not the person to tell you exactly how it holds up. But I’m of the belief that all films are created equal and deserve to be judged as such. With that being said, this film definitely manages to hold its own.
Directed by Michael Noer, Papillon follows Henri “Papillon” Charrière (Charlie Hunnam), a safe-cracker and thief in France during the 1930s, as he is sent to the penal colony of French Guiana to serve a life sentence for a murder he did not commit. The film doesn’t linger long on his time before prison, but it still manages to let us know that he’s good at what he does, loves his girlfriend, is as strong as he is slick, and clever as he is charming. On the boat trip over to the island prison he has been condemned to live out the rest of his life on, Papillon meets Louie Dega (Rami Malek). Dega is a small, weak, smarmy looking con-man arrested for forging bank notes. He’s upper class and has money coming out of his ass (quite literally – how else could he bring it to prison with him?). The two quickly form a necessary partnership. Papillon will protect Dega from all the people trying to kill him for his fortune, and in return, Dega will give our hero some of that aforementioned fortune so that he can use it to his advantage when he attempts his escape. This is, for all intents and purposes, the main focus of the entire plot. Walking in, I was ready for a simple and entertaining prison escape film. A heist film going backward, filled with fast-paced editing, intricate montages of an escape plan while Charlie Hunnam explains it to the rest of the crew he’s put together. That’s not what I got.
Perhaps had I known that Aaron Guzikowski, the screenwriter for Prisoners, was behind the pen for this remake of the film, I would have known what I was getting myself into. While there were a few times where the lines delivered were a bit too on the nose (take, for example, the Warden saying “there is no hope, just silence” before throwing Papillon into solitary), the film manages to trick you into thinking this is a simple case of yet another old classic being gritted up and branded as new that has been so common these last few years.
The power of this film lies in its subtlety, even though it’s chalk full of its blatancies as well. In many ways, it still feels like a prison epic made in the 1970s, particularly in the way that Papillon speaks to other inmates and covertly goes about his business while the pretty much useless Dega, who follows him like a wounded puppy, works as a framing device for the audience. This isn’t a bad thing, in fact, it’s exactly what I had expected from the film. What was surprising was the way that the rest of the film managed to sneak up on me. There is a blatant turning point in the film where it reveals that it’s no longer a prison escape film and the audience starts to realize that perhaps it never was. Papillon is placed in solitary confinement where he’s alone in a concrete box and not allowed to speak. While there, he begins to hallucinate. These hallucinations consist of a safe that he desperately wants to crack, memories of the last night he spent with his girlfriend and…Dega dressed up as a mime? Although nowhere close to earning the adjective of “Lynchian”, the scene allows itself to be more than the dirty, violent, prison film it’s set within, and becomes an introspective and inventive look into the mind of our main character. The time Papillon spends with only himself, the silence, and these strange visions helps us to recognize that what we are watching unfold is more than the sharp, sleek, genre film Papillon masqueraded as.
For the remainder of its runtime, the film doesn’t bother to be discreet about what it really wants us to look at. Sure, it still has its fair share of action, but there is a tension and suspense stirred into this film that goes so far past the generic question of “will he escape?” (which, let’s face it, with a memoir written and another film out, we already know the answer) and instead, places the emotional weight of the film on Papillon and Dega as characters with pain, emotions, and beliefs, rather than devices to move the action forward. Don’t get me wrong, I would have been more than happy if this had ended up being another formulaic genre film, but I’m so grateful that what we get instead is an intriguing study of the relationship between Papillon and Dega, played by Hunnam and Malek, both at the top of their game and sharing a chemistry that makes the slow, patient pacing of the film feel like a gripping ride instead of a long wait.