Sometimes a message is so subtly woven into a film that you don’t even really ingest it at first. It is only once you have finished Elvira Lind’s short film The Letter Room, starring her husband Oscar Isaac, that you begin to ruminate on what you have seen. What Lind is trying to get across to viewers. This is one of the most delicate and intelligent criticisms of the prison system which I have seen. Lots of (quiet) bang in the 33 minutes here.
Not surprising that this film has earned an Oscar nomination in the Best Live Action Short Film category. Most films set in prisons feature evil guards. Well, either brutal or uncaring, probably as a way to deal with the inhuman environment. Here Lind presents us with a different kind of prison guard. Here we see the human underneath that uniform. That keeping your humanity is possible while still looking to do a good job.
Corrections officer Richard (Oscar Isaac – Ex Machina, Inside Llewyn Davis) is one of those rare guards which the inmates actually like. That is because he treats them like human beings. Called into the warden’s office one shift, his dream of moving up in the prison guard world comes true. But it is not exactly the promotion he was thinking of.
The warden (Eileen Galindo – appeared in episodes of Chicago Fire and The Affair) tells Richard that he is being moved up to by in charge of prisoner correspondence. A fancy title but what it actually means is that he is to scan and then read each and every letter which is sent to inmates at the prison. A rather dull job which takes place alone in a rather featureless room. One letter blends into the next until a series of letters to a prisoner on death row catches Richard’s attention. So much so that he reaches out to the writer (Alia Shawkat – from television’s Arrested Development) which is a violation of his professional and ethical boundaries.
A natural feeling and paced short which does not force dialogue in. Instead much of the emotion of the film comes from the silence in between dialogue. Isaac does another good job here imbuing Richard’s face with equal amounts of desiring to make a connection with other human beings and loneliness.
An important aspect of the film is the censoring of the letters which are sent to the inmates. Another act of stripping their dignity and privacy as humans. A seemingly small thing which really shines light on a bigger issue. That we do not treat those in prison with any sort of respect or humanity. Shows how it is not a place which any hope of rehabilitation shines. A bigger story of what is inherently wrong with the prison system boils under the surface.
The film premiered at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival.