Heaven’s Prisoners

(Phil Joanou, USA, 1996)


It is typical for the haunted, ragged, morally compromised heroes of film noir to wake screaming from a bad dream – and then find it hard to tell the difference between their nightmare and reality.

Long before the dreams start for Dave (Alec Baldwin) in Heaven’s Prisoners, daily life is already a touch surreal.

One day on a yacht, about to make love to his wife Annie (Kelly Lynch), Dave is distracted by an odd sight: a burning plane crashing into the water. He manages to retrieve a little girl from the ruins, but the subsequent attempt to elucidate the identities of four dead bodies puts Dave off-side of seemingly every violent mobster in the Cajun swamps.

Dave is a guy with a dark past, and the brutal murder of Annie only revives the original sin lurking in his soul. Possessed by his demons, Dave confronts nefarious characters who also appear to have stepped out of a dream – or at least an old movie – such as his psychotic old chum, Bubba (Eric Roberts), and a manipulative femme fatale, Claudette (Teri Hatcher).

There are curious echoes of John Ford’s classic Western The Searchers (1956) in Heaven’s Prisoners. Like Ford’s archetypal anti-hero, Dave wanders through landscapes and homesteads like a deranged, compulsive sleepwalker, so bent on revenge that he loses touch with his very humanity.

Dave also has a troubled and complicated relationship to the notion of family. At the start of the plot, a child literally drops from the sky into his life; when his wife dies, a sassy old flame (Mary Stuart Masterson) glides in and takes her place in this makeshift family unit. No wonder Dave never feels emotionally settled or "at home".

Leonard Maltin once remarked that director Phil Joanou "is to the camera what James Brown is to shoes." His films (Three O’Clock High [1987], State of Grace [1990]) are usually characterised by an empty, ostentatious slickness, but Heaven’s Prisoners is stylistically subdued to the point of resembling a bland telemovie.

Still, there are enough invigorating chase scenes, oddball secondary characters and pleasing variations on the noir formula to make it work. In its genre, it is less pretentious than Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995), and far more satisfying than the overrated Devil In a Blue Dress (1995).

MORE Joanou: Fallen Angels, Wild Palms

© Adrian Martin October 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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