Papillon

Movie review by
Michael Ordona, Common Sense Media
Papillon Movie Poster Image
Brutal violence, strong language in prison remake.
  • R
  • 2018
  • 133 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Story is all about the triumph of the human spirit -- how a prisoner perseveres and refuses to be broken by years of hideously cruel and inhuman treatment. Also reflects the strong bonds of friendship.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Though main character is a thief, he's depicted nobly. He's self-sacrificing in the name of honor and friendship, and he doesn't burn with rage and vengeance despite years of inhuman, unjust incarceration. He displays a superhuman strength of will and spirit.

Violence

Many fights, beatings presented realistically, giving brutality real impact. Characters actually get hurt when they're kicked and stabbed. There's a fair amount of blood, including one disembowelment and a beheading. Significant cruelty toward the prisoners, including restraints, extended solitary confinement, use of the guillotine. Also an attempted prison rape, as well as a sexual act that's unpleasant for one partner. For those who've seen the original, the remake has significantly stepped up the violence.

Sex

Nude women (topless and scantily clad otherwise) in a club/brothel. Nude men (backsides, fleeting frontal) in a prison shower, including during a brutal fight.

Language

Persistent strong language: "f--k," "s--t," etc. Also "bulls--t," "son of a bitch," "hell," "ass," "balls," goddamn," "Jesus Christ" as an exclamation, etc.

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Celebratory drinking in the street. Smoking in and out of prison.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Papillon is an intense drama about a wrongly convicted man (Charlie Hunnam) who endures inhuman treatment during his time in prison but refuses to be broken or stop trying to escape. It's a notably more violent remake of the 1973 Steve McQueen-Dustin Hoffman film, which itself was based on the (factually disputed) autobiography of Henri Charrière. Expect strong, bloody violence -- including many realistically brutal fistfights, stabbings, and beatings, attempted rape, a disembowelment, and a beheading. There's also extremely cruel mistreatment of the prisoners, including years of starvation and solitary confinement. Language is strong throughout, especially "f--k" and "s--t." But there's also a clear message about perseverance and the triumph of the human spirit. Rami Malek and Roland Moller co-star.

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What's the story?

In PAPILLON, a thief named Henri Charrière (Charlie Hunnam) is wrongly convicted of murder in 1930s Paris and gets sent to a brutal prison colony in French Guyana. There Henri befriends Louis Dega (Rami Malek), a rich, frail forger, as a means to escape. Henri endures extremely cruel, inhuman treatment as he refuses to break. This is a remake of the 1973 film starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in two of their most famous roles, based on Charrière's (factually disputed) autobiography.

Is it any good?

While it may fall under the category of "remakes no one was clamoring for," this new film is solidly made -- while feeling simultaneously more brutal and more scrubbed. Hunnam delivers his best performance to date as the titular Papillon, the indomitable prisoner with a superhuman will to survive. Danish director Michael Noer vividly conveys the movie's time and place and wisely casts charismatic collaborator Roland Moller in a key role as a fellow prisoner.

Yet, while it steps up the bloody violence from the original, the new film also feels sanitized in a way. The remake is about two things: Papillon's unbreakable will, and his friendship with Louis. So was the original, with both films exaggerating a less-significant relationship from the book to craft that relationship. But the remake goes farther with the friendship, and Hunnam's take on Henri is more like Captain America than the Cooler King (McQueen's iconic Great Escape character). There's vulnerability in his long stretches of solitary confinement, but not that much. McQueen's take was less self-sacrificing, less shiny; his rebellion was wisely not directly in his captors' faces, unlike Hunnam's. That makes the new film feel less like an underdog story than a superhero tale, which reduces the tension. There's also a subtly homophobic vibe in the remake that really comes out in comparison to the original. Still, comparisons aside, Noer's film is visceral and tactile, and the story of a man who simply won't allow himself to be broken is certainly relatable. Papillon's miraculous physical and mental survival still make for fascinating cinema.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how the prisoners are treated in Papillon. Is it ever justified to treat human beings that way?

  • How does the violence in this movie compare to what you've seen in other films? How does its realistic nature affect its impact?

  • Did you find the portrayal of Papillon himself believable? Was he too good/strong, or did you buy the characterization? Do you consider him a role model?

  • If you've seen the original, what would you consider the main differences between the two versions? If not, do you want to see it?

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