Return to Paradise
This thriller has an exquisite life-and-death dilemma for three American characters, Lewis (Phoenix), Sheriff (Vaughn), and Tony (Conrad), who meet in Malaysia, hang out at the beach, drink rum, find women, and smoke hashish, until Sheriff and Tony return to New York. Lewis will go to Borneo to help Greenpeace protect orangutans. But he's arrested for possession of leftover hash; by carrying more than the legal limit of what any one person can hold and still be just a "user," Lewis technically became a "trafficker," and is sentenced to death.
His advocate, Beth (Heche), finds Sheriff and Tony two years later to tell them his circumstances, and that she has cut a deal: If Sheriff and Tony go to Malaysia and testify that all three owned the hash, Lewis will be spared. But Sheriff and Tony will each have to spend three years in prison. If only one man testifies, he'll face six years.
This is the age-old Prisoner's Dilemma, often debated in mathematics and philosophy. Neither Tony or Sheriff want Lewis to die, but they don't know him well, and don't want to spend three years in a Third World prison, much less six. Best for either would be for the other to accept six years, but if both men try to get the other to do that, Lewis will die. Sheriff and Tony must decide.
Heche's performance is especially effective; she walks a fine line between inviting Tony and Sheriff to save Lewis' life, and coercing them with moral blackmail. It isn't easy to walk away from freedom in New York into three years in a prison where disease, brutality, malnutrition, and dysentery are common. Heche looks focused, intently trying to read the signs.
We move inexorably toward the conclusion, in suspense at how events will happen, how they must. The screenplay doesn't portray Malaysia as villainous; the judge there puzzles why America won't let drug-dealers suffer instead of the general population. The only real villain is a journalist (Smith), so eager to get Lewis' story that she might endanger the effort to free him, just as many journalists get stories at a human cost their story can't justify.
More cerebral than "Midnight Express," this move pulls us both ways: We want Sheriff and Tony to save Lewis, but we're not sure we would. That's The Prisoner's Dilemma, simply put.
Bruce Robinson and Wesley Strick
Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche, Joaquin Phoenix, David Conrad, Vera Farmiga, Jada Pinkett Smith
Malaysian prison; Prisoner's Dilemma
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