IndieWire | February 23, 2019 | Ben Travers
Jeffrey Wright in “O.G.” | HBO
An introspective look at what a life behind bars does to a man, "O.G." benefits from a soulful turn from its compelling star.
“O.G.” is not “Escape at Dannemora.” It’s not an escape-thriller, even though it is a countdown to an escape. It’s not about the unique qualities of one prison or one special case, even though it was shot in an operating prison and focuses on a solitary man. Madeleine Sackler’s drama is all brooding introversion whereas Ben Stiller’s Showtime series was bubbly extroversion, and the faster audiences realize this, the better. “O.G.” is rewarding on its own terms, when you’re in the mood for a meditative examination of life in prison, but it’s less enthralling when gauged against expectations set by other prison stories.
Take the basic premise: Shot in Indiana’s Pendleton Correctional Facility (about 45 minutes northwest of Indianapolis), “O.G.” is named after its main subject, Louis (Jeffrey Wright). The former leader of a prison gang (and sacrificial lamb of a street gang), Louis is in the final weeks of a 60-year sentence that’s been reduced first to 30 years, then to 24, all for good behavior. But the path to freedom grows thornier and thornier as Louis revisits the crime that put him behind bars, tries to help a new arrival named Beecher (Theothus Carter), and ultimately questions whether he can (and should) survive on the outside.
It’s easy to imagine a version of “O.G.” with gang fights and big speeches; with barbaric violence and a whole new language of dirty words; where Louis sweats out the ticking clock while wrestling with a moral dilemma everyone can understand. But Sackler takes the more difficult path. She treats the plot like an unavoidable nuisance. Time stubbornly forges on, forcing decisions where none are invited. The real stakes aren’t with Beecher or the other inmates or even with Louis’ physical self. They’re within his mind, and Sackler visualizes them with artful, ethereal compositions.
“O.G.” is a slice-of-life movie, if your life existed solely in a 10×10 cell — or, more accurately, if it existed in the 22-inch space on top of your neck. Sackler embodies her setting by recognizing its realities and limitations. The sparse lockups and rundown common areas (not to mention the ragged uniforms of everyone from inmates to guards) paint a vivid portrait of lifeless living. Viewers feel the prison and its walls at all times, just like the inmates do, and Sackler follows Louis to his only escape: his mind. Most of his answers are found in dreams, though the plot does occasionally force him to enunciate what his thoughts are wrestling with.
There’s a scene where Louis reaches out to the prison wall, and his hand slides through the concrete like it’s sand. Later, the frame widens as he steps into the world outside the prison — the exterior in the foreground, plains in the background, and dark skies up ahead. Louis won’t admit it, but he’s terrified of leaving prison even as he’s eager to be free. It’s a well-documented dilemma for long-term inmates, but “O.G.” doesn’t overextend the drama so much as it treats the fear with validity. What kind of life will Louis have on the outside, and what is he losing when he leaves?
Though Sackler’s path isn’t easy, it’s Wright who bears the most responsibility. A performer of uncanny specificity yet natural, unceasing tenderness, Wright hardens himself just enough to let Louis’ simmering emotions gurgle and burst to the surface. His eyes swim from side to side as he tries to accept realities he’s avoided or choices he doesn’t want to make, but there’s a stillness to him that lets the audience process thoughts along with him. Wright gives Louis the voice of a wise old man, but he’s not weak. He’s powerful, and feels like an unflappable presence even when working across from real convicts. (Did we mention “O.G.” was shot in a fully operational prison?)
For a film that avoids easy exposition, it’s easy to track — viewers can read everything that’s happening in Wright’s face, his mannerisms, and the way he carries himself. He spends the whole movie thinking over one big choice built around many small ones, and yet most of that time inside Louis’ mind is enriching. “O.G.” can be a tad slow, a touch too simple, and even a little distracted from making a larger, more declarative point about modern incarceration. But by carving its own path through Louis — and with a huge helping hand from Wright — it’s nothing short of original.
“O.G.” premieres Saturday, February 23 at 10 p.m. on HBO.