Movie reviews: Executioner in Apprentice deserved more screen time

Apprentice and The Fundamentals Of Caring focus on characters struggling to fix themselves

Two films this week each has a central character trying to fix himself. One finds comfort digging into a buried past, while another anaesthetises himself by caring for others.

Film-maker Boo Junfeng says Apprentice (M18, 96 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3.5/5 stars) is not about the death penalty, in spite of what the press might say.

He is right, to a point. Nobody here debates in the abstract or makes speeches about the right of the state to end a life.

But the atmosphere of death is present and is a miasma that blankets the story. It is a fog in which some never escape, but also a screen behind which others hide their insecurities to find self-worth. There is an executioner who talks about breaking necks with the casual, disconnected tone of someone explaining how to use software. Another man's life is glimpsed, right before he is woken at dawn to make the walk to the gallows.

In Apprentice, prison officer Aiman (Fir Rahman, right) struggles with his family history in a new job post, while In The Fundamentals Of Caring, Ben (Paul Rudd), wrestles with his past while he cares for wheelchair user Trevor (Craig Roberts). PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

As he showed in Sandcastle (2010), Boo is keenly interested in the shockwaves caused by historical trauma as it ripples through the present-day. His latest work also deals with a missing father, and the private shame of a family caused by the father's public downfall.

In the case of young prison officer Aiman (Singapore actor Fir Rahman), that shame breeds silence and, with it, an obsession with finding the truth.

When Aiman finds that a new posting puts him close to hangman Rahim (Malaysian film and television veteran Wan Hanafi Su), that itch drives him to take risks. The same hunger - or is it ghoulish curiosity? - drives a wedge between him and his closest relative, sister Suhaila (Suria regular Mastura Ahmad).

The event that triggers Aiman's quest is how writer- director Boo gains access into the workings of death row and the character of Rahim, the man with the hand on the lever.

Rahim is a fascinating character, the person with an authoritarian personality we have all met - the type with no patience for trivial questions of guilt or innocence, or whether the taking of a life is ever justified.

In this trio of character studies, the chief executioner of the fictional Larangan Prison is the most intriguing and it is a shame that the story does not spend more time with him. Boo makes up for it by teasing out detailed performances, especially in the young-student-gruff-sensei match-up.

Mood is also Boo's strong suit and that is gained in large part through the use of real prison locations in New South Wales, Australia. That good work is slightly undone with an undercooked suspense thread that appears mid-way.

That does not take away from Boo's accomplishment, achieved without preaching or using strawmen or stereotyping. He puts a human face on the abstract idea of capital punishment.

In Apprentice, prison officer Aiman (Fir Rahman) struggles with his family history in a new job post, while In The Fundamentals Of Caring, Ben (Paul Rudd, above right), wrestles with his past while he cares for wheelchair user Trevor (Craig Roberts). PHOTO: NETFLIX

American actor Paul Rudd has fully embraced his role as the go-to guy for "funny, with heart". The Fundamentals Of Caring (NC16, 97 minutes, 3/5 stars , showing on Netflix) is the latest vehicle for his brand of goofy warmth.

He is Ben, a man nursing a secret pain, glimpsed in flashback. In this work based on the 2012 novel The Revised Fundamentals Of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison, the former writer takes on a job as caregiver for the bitter, sarcastic Trevor (Craig Roberts), a wheelchair user with muscular dystrophy.

In a story with close parallels to Me Before You (still showing in cinemas), the pair embark on a road trip, where they meet other lost souls, among them Dot (Selena Gomez), also on a journey, as much to a place of healing as to a geographical location.

Director Rob Burnett, primarily a television helmer, on shows such as Ed (2003 to 2004), and a long-time producer on the talk show Late Show With David Letterman (1995 to 2015), turns in a movie that has just the right amount of edginess, hugs, self-therapy and inoffensive black humour. It all feels a little too slick, too much a made-for-Sundance dramedy, which it was, premiering at the 2016 edition of the event as the closing night movie.

Still, Rudd and British actor Roberts have great chemistry and the film's best moments are when they riff, chalk-and-cheese style - Rudd the silly American, Roberts the uptight Brit, both having a good time and bringing the audience along with them.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 29, 2016, with the headline 'Troubled men in the spotlight'. Subscribe