TLA Releasing,

Darren Flaxstone,
Christian Martin

Daniel Brocklebank, Garry Summers, Bernie Hodges, Wayne Virgo, Dymphna Skehill, Simon Pearce

Unrated, 87 minutes

Crosses And Cellblocks
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online February, 2011

From Darren Flaxstone and Christian Martin, the British team that brought us last year's Shank, comes 2010's Release. This is an interesting, if jumbled, prison movie that is certainly ambitious. This provocative film pushes more than a few envelopes but, ultimately, it tries to wear a few too many hats in the process.

Daniel Brocklebank stars as Father Jack Gille, a young and terrified gay priest who is adjusting to his new life as a prison convict. Upon arrival, he is told that he has "the look of a saintly pervert " by a rough looking prisoner who spits in his face. Because Jack is a disgraced priest, the other prisoners assume that he is a pedophile. (That is most likely what the audience will think at first too, but a very different reason for his arrest is revealed at the film's mid-point.) There's a pecking order in any prison and child molesters are traditionally treated like scum even by the most hardened criminals.

Release is also a love story between Jack and one of the guards. As the film opens, they are seen lying in each other's arms. We do not know who they are yet but we can see, as the camera pulls back, that they are in a prison cell. The morning alarm bell goes off and Officer Martin Crane (Garry Summers) leaps out of Jack's cot to hurriedly don his uniform and return to work before he gets caught. Jack straightens Martin's tie, they kiss, and the guard runs off. This first scene is an attention grabber. The storyline of Release is non-linear and we begin in the middle of the tale and then leap around in flashback to learn how the two men met and became lovers. It's a bit confusing on a first viewing but when we finally watch their first fateful kiss, its tenderness is heartfelt and makes the earth move under our feet.

Jack's quality times with the guard are small bits of heaven but he's still locked away in prison. He is not having an easy time, and the inmates' leader, Max (Bernie Doges), is proving to be a formidable nemesis. This is a typical prison movie scenario but the offbeat approach to Max's character illustrates the ways that these filmmakers think outside the box. A more conventional movie would have made Max a hulking giant with tattoos and maybe an eyepatch. Instead, he is a smug and quiet man who seems to have raided Mr. Rogers' wardrobe because he usually dons a wimpy tan sweater. This bizarre touch actually adds to his menace.

There are two other major players in this story. Wayne Virgo (Shank) plays Rook, Jack's troubled young cellmate. Rook is a former crack addict; he tosses and turns in his sleep from nightmares about being molested. Jack befriends him and this makes the kid a target of Max and his goons. It is when Jack tries to rescue Rook that Martin falls in love with the priest. The other player is Heather Avery (Dymphna Skehill), the prison's governess. Warden Avery looks like the SS version of a woman's prison movie dyke, except that she blatantly ogles all of the male guards. Her sights are set on Officer Martin until Max informs her that the guard "worships at a different altar." Max and the Governess seem to have an understanding and she turns a blind eye when Max tells her that his lads need to blow off a little steam.

My response to this film has been complicated and it has proved difficult to write about. I watched Release twice. To be honest, it didn't thrill me the first time and I hate the ending. Even so, I cannot dismiss this movie. There were parts where I rolled my eyes and parts that I liked, but the good parts don't gel into a cohesive whole. Characters are underwritten but inbued with quirky little traits (like the Warden constantly straightening her diploma on the wall) that stick in the mind. Release might be lacking in some areas but it is filled with "moments" that engaged me.

This is not an over-the-top guilty pleasure like HBO's prison drama, Oz. Release strives for more realism and that is where its problems begin. Corrupt guards are a staple in prison movies but there are way too many of them here. It's a bit far fetched that Martin is the only honest guard.(So much so that the Warden tells him to curb his idealism.) The film's shocking ending could never happen if this prison had any awareness of the concept of security. Jack's sentence - 18 months - also seems a bit light, considering his crime. Also, while we're at it, doesn't any of the other guards on the night shift notice Officer Martin's absences while he's frolicking in Father Jack's cell? These are issues of believability that can't be ignored. I said something earlier about the film wearing too many hats. Release tries to be too many things: a gritty prison movie; a forbidden love story; a diatribe against the church's position on gays, a rumination on faith and its loss. Two failed institutions, both penal and religious, are the filmmakers' targets.

The film's non-linear shape is intriguing but it was probably a mistake to wait until the middle of the movie before revealing the priest's crime. Many subliminal flashbacks seem to suggest that Jack was a pedophile and I fail to see why the filmmakers would not want their audience to identify with the film's hero from the onset. There will be a scandalous, yet very sad, revelation concerning Jack's younger brother. The morality of Jack's actions are subject to debate but he is paying the price for what he has done. I wasn't expecting a happy ending, and Jack's final punishment does deliver a powerful finale, but I think his fate was undeserved.

Script problems aside, Release is a brilliant exercise in style. The overall mood is grim. Prison scenes are bleached of color. The camera lingers on the peeling paint along the ceiling, or prowls through hallways like Stanley Kubrick's steadicam in The Shining. The soundtrack sometimes just features natural sounds like dripping pipes and slamming doors. Religious iconography abounds. The priest's dreams of golden-lit fields, where he sheds his clothes and runs free, recall the ending of Jean Genet's 1950 homoerotic prison short, Un Chant d'Amour. . This, and the love scenes, contrast with scenes of violence that are brutal, almost unbearably so. (The same was true of Shank.) There is an assault in the shower that goes on for a long time and then references Hitchcock's Psycho by showing blood running down the drain.

The shower assault is worth discusssing. It features a pile of naked men but none of them are Calvin Klein models. In fact, anyone who might have harbored thoughts of being titillated by washroom nudity is in for a shock by the senseless and ugly brutality of the scene. Forget the excitement, for example, in the sauna scene that featured Viggo Mortensen's nude fight to the death in David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. This is actually a good thing because I've seen too many queer film catalogues advertise shower rapes in prison movies as a selling tool. It is a brave, if repugnant, sequence.

Flaxstone and Martin understand what makes a film cinematic. There is a very suspenseful scene in which a guard shines a flashlight through the small window in Jack's cell door, while the clandestine lovers hide in a corner to escape discovery. Thir love scenes are major highlights, brimming with both romance and passion. The scenes are dark, lit with shafts of light. At times their lovemaking has all the solemnity of a Mass and maybe perhaps the choir music is a tad overdone. Brocklebank is hot as Father Jack. He's a cross between Sam Neil and Sting during his days with The Police. But he's too sexy to be a priest - the man is built, and how many priests have a cool tribal tattoo like that running over their shoulders and down their backs? And Officer Martin looks way too friendly and benign to be a prison guard. But who cares, their interludes together are transcendent. and provide an idyllic response to the ultraviolence in the rest of the picture.

I watch a lot of queer films. Some of them are so unmemorable that they blend together and are quickly forgotten. Many of them never get written about. Release, for all its faults, will not be forgotten about any time soon. But Release will be remembered for its parts rather than its whole. I meant it when I said that these filmmakers think outside the box because the film is never boring. It is a gutsy film that takes a lot of risks (it's unhappy ending for one) and, for that, this reviewer is grateful.


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