ASYLUM (2008): Just Enough Chain For A Movie To Hang Itself With

Anyone working in the genre filmmaking field is always looking for a clever twist on familiar elements.  In that respect, Oliver Chateau deserves credit for conceptual ambition with Asylum (also known as I Want To Be A Gangster).  It presents the audience with an unorthodox and unique hybrid of the crime movie and the survival thriller.  However, having an interesting twist in mind isn’t enough: execution is just as important as ambition – and in that respect, Asylum falls short.

But first, a plot synopsis: Jack (Julien Courbey) is an aspiring gangster looking for a way into his local criminal underworld.  An initial scam he runs almost gets him killed but by luck and animal cunning, he manages to get into a professional crime outfit.  However, he soon makes a mistake terrible enough to make the boss homicidally mad at him.  The fatal punishment is truly cruel: Jack is knocked out, taken into the wilderness and chained by the ankle to a large tree.  As the days start to pass, he tries to figure a way out of his predicament and soon discovers he is not alone: both human and animal foes are working against him.

Asylum starts well: Jack’s rise and fall in the underworld is handled in a series of sparsely-staged but effective flashbacks.  Chateau wrote the script and his writing is at its most effective here: despite some redundant voiceover bits, he comes up with clever reworkings of familiar hooks.  Highlights include a clever variation on Russian roulette and an assassination scenario that plays out in an unexpected manner.  That said, the incident that causes Jack to get into fatal trouble with his boss is both dumb and totally avoidable on his part, a combination that hints at the problems that dog the last two-thirds of the film.

Chateau runs into serious problems once Jack is chained to the tree: he has got fifty minutes left to fill and has trouble figuring out ways to do it (at one point, Jack uses a camera to do a time-filling video blog).  Without getting into spoilers, a few more characters are introduced during the latter two-thirds of the film but the resulting scenarios involving them require everyone – including Jack – to do incredibly stupid things to move the plot forward.  As a result, the latter part of the film is kind of story that you find yourself rewriting in your mind because you have a hard time accepting what is happening on screen.

The story problems are likely to cause many viewers to disengage from the film, which is a shame because Chateau is decent as a director.  He cast the film well, makes solid visual choices and has a decent sense of pacing.  Unfortunately, Asylum is crippled by the fact the script is more a clever idea padded out to feature length: the characterizations are weak, the dialogue is mediocre and the dwindling inventiveness that marks the last 50 minutes of the film ensures that Asylum is ultimately a disposable cinematic experience.  Chateau shows promise as a director but his work here suggests that he needs to leave the screenwriting to someone else.

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