It might seem trite to begin a film review with a quote, but we live in a world of clichés and can only outrun our own for so long. At the beginning of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy famously writes, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” With her latest directorial venture, Prisoner’s Daughter, Catherine Hardwicke provides a pointed counter to this assertion with a domestic drama so rife with platitudes that the film begins to feel like a parody of itself.
The director’s second release of 2023 — following April’s Mafia Mamma — Hardwicke continues to fall victim to the same pitfalls of all her recent work, forgoing the honest spontaneity and painful meditation of earlier films like Thirteen. Max (Brian Cox), a terminally-ill con, has been given compassionate release to live the remainder of his life under house arrest with his estranged daughter, Maxine (Kate Beckinsale), and her precocious 12-year-old son Ezra (Christopher Convery). Ezra’s father, Tyler (Tyson Ritter), is a deadbeat, “undiscovered” musician with a drug problem, whose mound of shared debt has made it difficult for Maxine to put food on the table, much less pay for Ezra’s expensive epilepsy medication. Max is much less welcomed home than he is permitted to live out his days here on the condition that he pay his way and cover rent for the family. From this initial setup, the rest of the film unfolds with a languid inertia that moves at the surface of what could have been a deep emotional pool of familial reckoning. Tyler wreaks havoc, Max softens, Ezra and Maxine warm to him; there’s a rift, there’s a reconciliation, there is a violent climax, and it all mostly amounts to nothing.
Hardwicke has Frankensteined the skeleton of a story without a mind for muscle. Despite its material, Prisoner’s Daughter lacks heart, and is instead pushed along its uneven course by an array of overtly manipulative plot beats that make certain sequences feel like a trauma-dumped Lifetime movie. In one particularly jarring scene, an angry Max knocks out Tyler, which then causes Ezra to have a seizure. As Maxine panics over his body, Hardwicke at first meanders over the the head of the seizing boy, and then lingers; here we are brought, face-to-face, not with a scene of intense familial strife, but with cheaply packaged pain that feels borderline inappropriate in its blitheness, like a livestreamer making content from a riot.
Through it all, there’s still something to be said for how well Cox and Beckinsale work with what they’re given, so much so that in scenes of uninterrupted dialogue, the film occasionally captures a gentle, charming rhythm. But even these scenes are troubled, too often chopped up in favor of jarring cuts and questionable handheld zigzagging, reminiscent of the stalking shots employed in Hardwicke’s Twilight. This regrettable approach to composition is obviously not the fault of other actors, who all put in admirable work keeping up with Cox and Beckinsale. But both their efforts and the film’s flow do no favors for a director who chooses to let her camera consistently linger far beyond the point where a scene has gone stale.
This is the essential problem of Prisoner’s Daughter, a film that picks broadly familiar ideas for its material but doesn’t do the work to enrich or reshape them. This isn’t to say the film is entirely unwatchable, but Hardwicke here fails to leverage her distinct style or proven facility with thorny material in a way that would transcend the dramatic cliches that suffocate the film. When we are met with such banality in our art, from where should we find inspiration to transcend the staleness of our own cliches in life?
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 26
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