Brian Cox and Kate Beckinsale put a lot of heart and grit into their performances in this tale of a dying inmate reconnecting with his kid, even if the story steps through familiar 1-2-3 paces.
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I sometimes think the mark of a really good actor is not just the ability to nail a terrific piece of writing but the capacity to sell dialogue or storytelling that maybe isn’t the most original or interesting.
“Prisoner’s Daughter” is a good example of the latter.
The setup centers on an older convict, Max, who is dying of pancreatic cancer and is offered compassionate leave to live with his daughter, Maxine, during the final months of his life. He was a crappy father and they’ve been estranged for many years, but she agrees to it because she needs money and is struggling to raise a bright, acerbic 12-year-old with epilepsy who’s being bullied at school. Her ex, a loser junkie, keeps popping up to insist he be a part of their son’s life… and dropping threats if he isn’t.
Now, given that premise, a clever observer — or really, anyone who’s watched more than a dozen movies in their life — can predict everything that will happen. The script by Mark Bacci feels like something churned out of a screenwriting class, with carefully timed emotional beats and a story that waltzes through familiar paces 1-2-3.
And yet, stars Brian Cox and Kate Beckinsale are so invested in their performances, it just works. Director Catherine Hardwicke (“Thirteen,” “Twilight”) lets the pair roll in their scenes together, showing a lot of heart and grit as two people joined by tragedy who are more alike than they’d care to admit.
Christopher Convery is also very good as Maxine’s son, Ezra, who they try to keep in the dark about all the bad stuff they’ve experienced under the delusion they’re protecting him. But the kid is smart and observant and keeps figuring things out for himself. Ezra is the rare child character you see in the movies these days who exists as his own person with internal motives and the agency to act upon them, rather than just reacting to whatever the adults are doing.
Good old hand Ernie Hudson turns up as Hank, a boxing buddy of Max’s during his bad days when he was throwing fights and being used as muscle by even worse dudes. Together they work on toughening up Ezra and teaching him to fight, insisting he has to square off with his tormentors sooner or later. It’s a small part, but Hudson smacks like tough leather with every scene.
Tyson Ritter plays Ezra’s dad, Tyler, and woof, is he creepy as all get out. Tyler thinks he’s still on the glide path to rock star fame but really he’s just a tweeker squatting in an abandoned building with a bunch of other addicts and calling it a commune. He says all the right things about wanting to be in Ezra’s life, but his dead stare and manic mood swings unnerve everybody around him.
In prison, Max was a respected figure who helped a lot of younger guys overcome their anger and addiction. But to Maxine, he’s this terrible figure who disappeared for long stretches doing horrible things or other prison stints.
Max know he has no right to demand anything of her, most of all forgiveness, but he proceeds with the mind of trying to always be of help and hoping her wall of resentment will eventually start to crumble. In addition to mentoring Ezra, he gets the dilapidated apartment out back fixed up and gives her all of his prison earnings over the last 12 years, which comes to a check for $1,560.
“Prisoner’s Daughter” is notable for authentically reflecting the life of blue-collar people with minimum-wage or service jobs, in this case living on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Maxine works as a waitress during the day and as a backstage girl at a strip club at night, and still struggles to make the mortgage payment and keep Ezra’s medication bottle filled.
Later, with Max’s calling in a favor from an old friend, she gets offered a low-end office job for a laundry service. It’s the sort of thing a lot of people would turn their nose up at, but her face lights up like someone spun a wand and magicked her into a princess.
Watching this movie, you know there’s eventually going to be some kind of rapprochement between father and daughter, with Ezra serving as the glue guy in the middle who helps them stick together. And, it’s OK — what the film lacks in surprises it makes up for in genuine emotion that’ll tug a tear from even the hardest eye.
Sometimes even when you know what the pitch is going to be, you can’t help admiring when it’s thrown with commitment and absolute sincerity.