Four Frames: Literal and symbolic barriers in Proof of Life (Taylor Hackford, 2000)

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Upon its release, Proof of Life (2000) was marketed and received as a vague update of the untouchable and inimitable classic Casablanca (1942). Tony Gilroy’s script pairs a realistic hostage-negotiation scenario with an unconsummated romance between its central characters: Meg Ryan’s Alice Bowman, whose husband Peter (David Morse) has been taken hostage by rebels in South America, and Russell Crowe’s kidnap and ransom negotiator Terry Thorne.

Whereas in Casablanca the central love interest was complicated by the presence of an unsuspecting spouse, however, here such tensions are absent, and so Gilroy’s script introduces Janis (Pamela Reed), Peter’s somewhat neurotic sister. Her presence problematises any potential romance between Alice and Thorne.

Part of the joy in watching this underrated film is the economy with which director Taylor Hackford repeatedly conveys emotional connection and disconnection between characters. With regard to Alice and Thorne, Janis can be interpreted as one of many visual, physical and symbolic obstacles in the film. Consider here four moments in which she makes her presence felt.

We first see Janis when Alice meets her at the airport terminal. While physical contact is made, the barrier between them prohibits any real emotional connection. In fact, Janis herself is placed between the camera and the barrier, which in itself may suggest the dramatic purpose of her character.

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Back at Alice’s home, it is Janis who takes the firmer hand when greeting Thorne. Standing literally between him and Alice, she presents a narrative obstacle: so long as she remains in the picture, the film is consigned to an unromantic (and thereby less marketable) hostage-negotiation thriller.

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“Janis”, of course, echoes Janus, the Roman god of doorways, of thresholds, of gates. In a significant scene later in the film, when Thorne returns to the Bowman home following a premature reassignment, Janis once again blocks his entry; indeed, Thorne has to force his way in.

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The possibility of a deeper emotional connection between Alice and Thorne is only restored when Janis returns home to raise the ransom money demanded by her brother’s captors. In a significant reversal of her entrance into the film, Janis is framed so that we see her moving away in the far background, on the other side of an airport terminal barrier. Alice stands in the centre of frame; in the foreground, we see Thorne. In an otherwise busy frame, the physical and visual space between Alice and Thorne is finally unobstructed; Janis’s departure has de-problematised the film’s romantic tensions as it heads into its final and more conventional narrative thrust…

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Throughout Proof of Life, Hackford demonstrates how subtly and economically meaning can be communicated through something as simple as the arrangement of actors. In these and many other scenes, his placement of Janis within the cinematic frame is one of the things that elevate an ostensibly ordinary film to one that is both visually economic and narratively intriguing. And if you’re still unconvinced, you’ll always have Paris…

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