Rated R - Running Time: 1:51 - Released 8/14/98

Now (fall and winter) is the time when the Oscar contenders start coming out, and Joseph Ruben’s Return To Paradise is the second (after Saving Private Ryan) that I consider to be undoubtedly deserving of Best Picture consideration. Like Ryan, it is as disturbing as it is excellent. It has romance, it has tragedy, cruelty and the deepest love. All carefully crafted by screenwriters Wesley Strick and Bruce Robinson into a beautifully layered study of character and endurance. Anne Heche absolutely shines in this movie, as does Joaquin Phoenix and Vince Vaughn. All are deserving of recognition from the Academy, as is director Ruben.

This is one of those "it could happen to you, and thank God it didn’t" movies. It all starts innocently enough, with three guys on an extended vacation to Malaysia. Two of them, "Sheriff" (Vaughn) and Tony (David Conrad) are friends from New York; the third, Lewis (Phoenix), is an environmentalist they met along the way. They’re there to have fun, make love to beautiful native women, and smoke the best (and cheapest) hashish they’ve ever encountered. In fact, the stuff is so cheap, they buy too much. When their money runs out, Sheriff and Tony must return to their reality in New York, but Lewis plans to remain and volunteer on a project to help save abused orangutans.

After two years have passed, Tony and Sheriff have lost contact, Tony is engaged to be married, and Sheriff has an unfulfilling job driving rented limos. One evening, a woman named Beth (Heche) climbs into his car and asks him to drive around. She then informs him that she is a lawyer representing Lewis, who has spent the last two years in a Malaysian prison for drug trafficking. It seems the police discovered him, one man alone with all that excess hash, and convicted him on the spot. He has spent over 700 days and nights in a squalid, reeking prison cell, and is sentenced to hang in eight days. But there is one way out: If Sheriff and Tony agree to return to Malaysia and admit to their part-ownership of the drugs, the three of them would only share a possession charge. They would each have to spend three years in that very same prison. If one of them goes, he’ll be in for six. But Lewis would be spared.

So begins an incredible psychological journey, bringing into play every emotion in the spectrum. Beth begins working on the men, trying sweetness and threats, appealing to their valor, always aware of the shrinking time until Lewis’s hearing. Sheriff is weighing the fact that his life has been bereft of honor and of meaning, and that he is partly responsible for the chain of events leading up to Lewis’s arrest. And Tony is trying to explain to his intended bride why he is considering leaving her for three years (at least). And added to this is the fact that if one goes and the other stays, it’s a 6-year sentence. Is it to be all for one, or every man for himself? The dynamic at work among these three is something to watch.

Lewis is one of the nicest people they had ever met, selfless to the core. But is he worth such a large part of their lives? And what about this prison? Is there torture? Disease? Overcrowding? How do they know they won’t all be hanged? These are the questions Beth tries to answer; she has maintained contact with Malaysian officials, who have apparently agreed that each man would have his own cell and there would be no physical abuse. But even so . . .

The powerful portrayals in this film are rivaled by its powerful story. The plot is so richly detailed that, though it seems a ridiculously simple premise, it is brought to life with horriffic realism. There really isn’t much violent footage, but what there is is hard to watch. When Sheriff visits Lewis in prison, and Lewis tries to describe his life of the last two years, knowing that his friend has still not yet agreed to the deal . . . what a scene.

Heche’s acting is exquisite. Her character is so multi-faceted; her ability to remain seemingly detached, despite her own personal connection to the case, is astounding. This is one of the most difficult characters I could imagine having to play, and she does it with grit and grace.

I find no flaws in this movie, unless you consider the unpleasant subject matter. Of course, the media is the real villain as usual, but in this case, the scenario is very believable. The four leads turn in some of the best performances I’ve seen in a long time, and Reynaldo Villalobos’s cinema is top-notch. If you love good cinema, do not miss it. But be prepared: it isn't easy. *****

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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