Convicts, set in 1902 Texas and based on Horton Foote’s “Orphan Home” cycle of plays, is the story of Horace Robedaux (Lukas Haas, Inception), a young man working the land for plantation owner Soll Gautier (Robert Duvall, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) so that he can raise enough money to pay for a tombstone for his father’s grave. It becomes increasingly clear that Soll’s current mental state may prevent Horace from ever collecting his wages. Mining history, and with a keen ear for dialog, Foote’s screenplay and Peter Masterson’s direction transports the viewer to a bygone era. James Earl Jones (Star Wars), Carlin Glynn (Sixteen Candles) and Starletta DuPois (The Waterdance) are the ensemble cast who vividly bring to life characters of a time and place.
Transferring a stage play to the screen is a lot like adapting a book in many ways. It requires a bit of finesse to move a piece of work that could take place on a single location to a larger canvas. Some stage adaptations feel entirely too “staged” while others lose the soul of the original playwright’s work. ‘Convicts’ makes a nice transition to film, featuring one of Robert Duvall’s finest performances.
In 1902 Texas, thirteen year old Horace (Lukas Haas), works a plantation store at fifty cents a week in order to afford a proper stone for his father’s grave. Six months later, the young boy hasn’t been paid by the plantation owner Soll Gautier (Robert Duvall). Soll has long gone senile, his mind wondering from past memories to random tasks including his convict workers who in his eyes are frequently trying to escape or kill him - ever delaying the day when Horace is going to get paid the $12.50 owed to him.
While Soll owns things on paper, It is his overseers Ben (James Earl Jones), Martha (Starletta DuPois), and Jackson (Mel Winkler) who actually run things. On Christmas Eve, Soll has promised to pay Horace what’s due to him, only every promise of payment slips away as Soll’s mental faculties steadily deteriorate. He writes new wills, promising to leave his property to seemingly whomever is in the room; it doesn’t matter that he’s signed his name to the paper, the recipient knows it’s worthless - just like all of his other promises. It isn’t that Soll is a bad man, he’s just a sad man who is coming to the end. Hovering around like buzzards waiting to pick over Soll’s carcass are his niece and her husband.
This film faces death head on, from the opening convict hunt to the eventual end. It’s never easy to see someone in decline, it’s heart wrenching. While an ominous tone is present throughout, this is also a movie about appreciating memories and history. In between each of Soll’s slips into morose tirades are moments of great fondness and ultimate sadness over the people who have come and gone in his life. Bringing his best to the role is Robert Duvall. It’s not an easy performance by any means. You’re supposed to love and hate Soll equally, and Duvall anchors this film on steady ground. Also great is Lukas Haas who brings a welcome level of innocence to the role while still being wiser beyond his years as a child that has experienced more than a thirteen year old boy should have.
Helping to bring the film to great life is the steady direction of Peter Masterson. Masterson gets real range out of his cast. He also has a great handle on the material juxtaposing death with frequent views of a thriving farm in the deep background. Also working towards this film is playwright Horton Foote who wrote the screenplay. The film has the dialogue and grandiose themes of a play, while working equally well as a film. There is a very organic feeling that this material belongs on the screen and wasn’t simply copied over.
‘Convicts’ is not an easy film to be sure. It’s quite heavy and has very few moments of levity - especially since it deals with an ultimate inevitability we all face. At a quick 90 minutes, it’s worth a viewing - if for no other reason than to see Robert Duvall do what he does best. It would be something to see this story on stage, as I can imagine it wouldn’t need to change locations much. As a film, it is quite good and if you’ve never seen it, I suggest you give it a shot.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
‘Convicts’ arrives on Blu-ray via Olive Films on a BD25 disc housed in a standard Blu-ray case. The disc opens to the main menu that replicates the box artwork.
Olive Films brings ‘Convicts’ to Blu-ray with mixed results in this 1.85:1 HD presentation. First off, flicker has a persistent presence in this transfer, in particular during the opening credits. Some scenes look more stable than others, but there is always a bit of flicker. There is also a bit of slight print damage in the form of small scratches and flecks, they’re not very intrusive - but they’re there. In spite of some decent black levels, contrast can appear a bit bright leading the image to feel flat in some places. Colors are a bit muted, but that could be by intent. However, Flesh tones hang a bit towards the pink side of things.
On the plus side of things, film grain is fine but not intrusive leading to pretty solid detail levels. All you have to do is look at the clothing, trees, or the unshaven faces to see that this film hasn’t been scrubbed with any kind of DNR. For the most part this HD presentation is pretty good, in spite of the grievances listed above. It isn’t the best, but it isn’t the worst either.
With a DTS-HD MA 2.0 track, this Blu-ray of ’Convicts’ earns fantastic marks. As a film based off of a play, dialogue is front and center and keeps largely to the midranges. Peter Melnick’s pleasing score keeps to the side of the things and rarely intrudes into the film aside from the opening and closing credits. What's especially lovely about this track is the imaging. As the film takes place on a Texas plantation, background sounds from screeching birds to the abundant chatter of insects makes the film feel alive.
Original Trailer (HD 0:27) - this brief preview is hardly a trailer, it feels more like a deleted opening credit sequence.
Movies and stories that deal with death can be a tough sell depending on where you stand with those things. Some people have an absolute fear or worry about death, I myself have chosen to embrace it in a way - I can’t change it, so why fight it? With that, it's still equally difficult to see a loved one in decline, and there are parts of this film that hit a bit too close to home for comfort, but I guess that’s also why the material is so good. ‘Convicts’ is a good movie with wonderful performances. The HD presentation leaves a little to be desired, but the DTS-HD track is splendid and gives this film plenty of life. Give it a look, it’s worth the time.