Papillon (1973) (R)

"Papillon" is a relentless movie, one that plunges from high to low again and again, essentially drowning the viewer in its emotion. It is a virtual death, it is that potent.
The movie begins in French New Guinea where prisoners have been assembled and are being shipped off to a penal colony. Two of them, including our main character, are preceded by their reputations.
Henri "Papillon" (Steve McQueen) is being jailed for a murder that he claims he didn't commit. He knows that money speaks thousands of words in the prison, he decides that he wants to associate himself with one of the world's best counterfeiters, Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman) to survive. Dega has all the money, all the money. His schemes have made him very rich, a criminal, but wealthy.
As they reach the prison, desperation starts to sink in. One of their fellow inmates decides that he will injure himself in the leg with a knife just to be taken to the hospital so that he can have a chance to escape.
As the days turn into months, Papillon and Dega decide that escape is their only way out...but escaping may be the most dangerous thing they could do, not because of what lies outside the prison; but because of the mindset it poisons them with.
"Papillon" is a staggering masterpiece, a flaming thrill-ride, a work of total genius. It is revealing and celebratory, unsentimental and tortuous.
Perhaps the one facet of the film that holds it all together is Jerry Goldsmith's score which was the only part of the film to receive an Academy Award nomination. Time has a way of sweeping away the excess and "Papillon" still stands tall today as an unflinching masterwork.
There's not much I want to say about the film itself because I don't want to give anything away; but I will say this, it is a surprisingly visceral film.
It is also the kind of movie that makes you ache because it is so good. It makes you want to freeze time so you can suspend the feeling of being lost inside its world. "Papillon" is completely engrossing, perfectly constructed, and immaculately executed. The film can make you cry simply because of its beauty.
At first glance, "Papillon" can come across as just "another" film. It rings true of "The Great Escape" from years before...but that's not giving the film any of the praise it deserves. I've made no secret my disliking of "The Great Escape"; but I think that "Papillon" was the movie I wanted all along. It's the cerebral side of the dry drama, and it is dazzling.
The film doesn't shy away from saying everything on its mind, which is why we see decapitations, deaths by stabbing, and uncomfortable sexual advances in the prison. The resolve of the film is also why we are privileged to gain access to Papillon's mind. Predating a plethora of films, "Papillon" throws every trick it can at the viewer. The camera changes from cold observer to Papillon himself, to a sympathetic's hauntingly effective.
Psychedelic and revealing with its lack of discrimination, "Papillon" may surprise you.
The film comes from master director Franklin J. Schaffner, who had recently won an Oscar for his biopic "Patton". This film is quite unlike that one, but it does prove that Schaffner can pull sensational performances from his cast.
Dustin Hoffman is overshadowed here by the magnificence of Steve McQueen. McQueen is crazy, determined, broken, hell-bent, scared, courageous, and softly loving. It's a performance that remains immortalized in film.
"Papillon" is the kind of film that makes you say "wow".

Score: ★★★★

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