Thursday, April 18, 2019

O.G. Doesn't Shy Away From Confronting Weighty Material And Is All The Better For It

Director Madeleine Sackler has not shied away from tackling heady material in her works as a documentary director and that commitment to confronting pressing issues in modern society continues with O.G., her first foray into conventional narrative filmmaking. This time around, the weighty issue she's exploring revolves around the personal experiences of a man serving the last few weeks of a prolonged prison sentence for killing another human being. Certainly, this is not meant to be fluffy feel-good entertainment that would be found in an Illumination movie, but in its best moments, O.G. (which is now streaming on the HBO GO app) explores challenging material in a truly thought-provoking manner.

The prisoner that O.G. focuses on is Louis (Jeffrey Wright), a man who Stephen Belber's script makes clear early on is not someone whose personality fits the stereotypical pop culture depiction of a prisoner serving time for a gruesome crime like murder. Louis is a thoughtful & introspection soul who enjoys reading and shooting the breeze with his co-workers in the prison autobody shop. He's only got a few weeks until he's up for release from his extensive prison sentence but a problem emerges when a new prisoner arrives named Beecher (Theothus Carter). Beecher is someone who is already falling in with the wrong crowd in the prison and Louis tries to help set him on a better path. Louis can't watch some younger soul fall into the same traps that used to consume him, though taking these steps to help Beecher could end up jeopardizing his release from prison.

It was no surprise to discover that O.G.'s screenwriter, Stephen Belber, has an extensive background in the world of stage plays. Much of O.G. and its heavy focus on dialogue exchanges between characters in a limited number of locales feels like it could be translated into a theater production with relative ease. In a cinematic format, many of these exchanges still manage to work well, especially since Jeffrey Wright is the one at the center of many of these conversations. Wright and that wonderful voice of his has always had a gift for communicating gravitas effortlessly that puts to excellent use in the role of the remorseful Louis.

Any time Louis speaks, Wright lends Belber's dialogue decades of haunting sorrow, a quality that Wright also communicates effectively on a physical level. His strengths with portraying this character in subtle body language is on full display in the best scene of O.G., which depicts Louis having to talk to the widow of the man he killed. The camera slowly zooms in on the back of Louis as the widow speaks extensively about her concerns about Louis being released back into society and Wright, just sitting there with his face turned away from the viewer, is still able to convey so much about what Louis is going through in this very moment, a feat aided by some cleverly executed camerawork.

Jeffrey Wright is delivering some superb acting in the lead role under the assured direction of Madeleine Sackler, a filmmaker who also makes good use of the actual penitentiary (Pendleton Correctional Facility) that the movie is set in, I love how she leans into the authentic wear-and-tear of this environment that makes for a great physical accompaniment to the similarly well-worn personality of our lead character. Stephen Belber's writing, unfortunately, is less consistently successful than either Wright's acting or Sackler's direction, with the biggest issue being how the character of Beecher fails to register as a real human being. So many of the characters in this movie, including the aforementioned widow of the man Louis killed and a high-ranking prison official named Danvers (William Fichtner), work because they're allowed to be complex individuals with points-of-view that are firmly communicated whereas Beecher is a more one-note creation that only serves as an instrument in the story of Louis rather than as a person in his own right.

Belber's script also has a big climactic scene set in the auto-body shop that feels underwhelming in execution both in terms of how it's written in the script and the clumsy way it's staged and blocked in the final film. Though not without its flaws, Belber's screenplay does have plenty of aspects to write home about, including delivering some memorable dialogue for Louis to deliver and for exploring the psychological mindset of Louis in an appropriately complex manner. The best parts of Belber's screenwriting are just like the best parts of O.G. in that they don't shy away from traversing weighty material in a powerful manner.

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