Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage. But they can make a smart idea for a pandemic movie.
Limited characters, small settings and lots of alone time – what makes incarceration so soul-numbing can also make a script easier to shoot under Covid restrictions. And not only do those limits help keep the budget down, they often resonate with audiences who have spent too much time themselves locked-up and alone.
Aaron Fjellman’s Caged took advantage of those conditions to tell a story about a prisoner in solitary, beginning to doubt his own sanity, even his own innocence. Now Dastan Khalili’s The Way takes a similar approach to examine the last days of a woman on death row, finally coming to terms with her life.
The Way – definitely not to be confused with the 2010 Martin Sheen movie about a Catholic pilgrimage – stars Eli Jane as a former mixed-martial-arts fighter who once made a bloody living in illegal, bare-knuckle fights. Thirteen years ago, one mad, crazy bit of violence landed her in prison, convicted of murder.
And now, the day of her execution is approaching.
Jane, though, has found a strange kind of peace. Befriended by a fellow inmate – and genuine martial-arts master – she’s currently calm, centered, resigned. Unlike the guard who’s fallen in love with her, and is frantically planning ways to break her out.
Although Khalili’s direction too often confuses volume with drama – there’s a lot of wall-shaking shouting and red-faced screaming in this movie – he still gets good performances from his actors. Kelcey Watson is tender and tortured as the compromised guard, and Jane is marvelous as the doomed prisoner.
Her features slip from hard heartlessness to peaceful assurance in a moment. Her physicality – whether in tender love scenes or bloody battle – is remarkable.
But Khalili’s script is overstuffed with flashbacks and hallucinations, and the dialogue often tends to awkward, Karate Kid pseudo-profundities (“Before I kick the bucket, I wish to close my circle.”) Too many details feel contrived, or unbelievable.
And then, in the last half-hour or so, things turn metaphysical, and nearly incomprehensible.
Until then, the stark, straightforward, day-to-day scenes of prison life – the short-tempered guards, the dehumanizing strip searches – have been powerfully convincing. And Khalili – who previously directed The Master, a documentary about the martial discipline of Qi Gong – has demonstrated a genuine fascination with the art’s combination of physical fitness and spiritual freedom.
But then, after a good solid hour, the movie moves from the truly intriguing to the simply trippy, trading tense situations for muddled mind games. Who, or what, is the real prisoner here? Where does the body end, and the soul begin? What is reality anyway, man?
What had been a grim little penitentiary movie quickly turns into a frustrating puzzle. And slowly The Way begins to lose its way.