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Non-Review Review: Maze

Maze is a gritty well-constructed psychological thriller, documenting the famous escape of thirty-eight inmates from the eponymous prison in 1983.

Written and directed by Stephen Burke, focuses its attention on two central characters who serve as opposite sides of the same coin. Larry Marley is a veteran member of the IRA, who survived hunger strike and is looked for a cause around which he might rally the movement. Gordon Close is the warden in charge of maintaining order in a prison packed with murderers and terrorists. Both men are trapped, whether by iron bars, concrete walls or political ideology.

Burke infuses Maze with a powerful cynicism, a clear frustration and contempt for a cycle of violence and hatred that perpetuates itself. The prison environment becomes a metaphor for the world created by the authorities and paramilitaries, a climate in which both sides serve as wardens and prisoners, ensuring that nobody is ever truly free. Maze is constructed as a very sterile film, largely desaturated, with Burke keeping the camera steady and often at a distance.

Maze is perhaps a little bit too conventional in places, a little too anchored in the routine expected from a prison break film and a little heavy-handed in its symbolism and thematic ruminations. While Burke avoids getting drawn into either side of this battle of wills, resisting the urge to glamourise or romanticise the escapees, there are points at which Maze feels a little too straightforward, trapped by the expectations of this sort of narrative. Still, the result is a thoughtful and well put-together film.

Like any good heist or breakout film, Maze pays a great deal of attention to routine and observation. Film is by its nature voyeuristic, but escape and robbery films tend to take that voyeurism to the next level. Instead of being a film about watching characters, the film evolves into a film about characters watching other characters. Maze is very dispassionate in its observations, very meticulous in its examinations.

There is a coldness to Maze that fits the material, with Burke never losing sight of the violence of which these men are capable. Maze understands that all of this documentation and planning has the potential to lead to something bloody and destructive, and the film very consciously avoids the giddy thrill that usually accompanies such thrillers. There is very little anticipation in Maze, only anxiety. There is a creeping and claustrophobic dread running through the movie, even as characters plot to break out of their literal prison. That feels entirely appropriate.

Maze suggests some small equivalence between Marley and Close, between prisoner and jailer. The film knows better than to try to frame this equivalence in moral terms, or to suggest that the two are in any way similar in circumstance or outlook. Instead, Maze insists that Marley and Close are brought together by the simple fact that they are both trapped in prisons both literal and metaphorical. Maze repeatedly suggests that the prison itself is a microcosm for the cycles of violence that defined the Troubles.

At one point in the film, Loyalist prisoners plan to hold a march through their wing of the prison. Republicans insist that the parade cannot pass through their end of the cellblock. Chaos ensues, a microcosm of every July protest that ever occurred. Close repeatedly insists that he has the luxury of leaving the prison at the end of every day, but the film insists that he simply trades one prison for another; his home is fortified with iron bars, and he uses the prison food truck at one point to help him move. This theme is underscored in the closing juxtaposition of Marley and Close.

Even the escape plot itself plays into this idea of blurred lines between captive and captor, between jailer and prisoner. Maze suggests that its characters have chosen to trap themselves in a perpetual cycle of violence and retribution, one reinforced by violence and brutality on both sides. While this is the film’s most interesting thematic point, it also plays into some of the missteps along the way.

While Maze uses the prison movie template to tell a broader story about a society trapped in a self-destructive spiral, there are points when Burke’s script leans too heavily into cliché. Marley and Close are intriguing characters. As played by Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Marley has a certain interiority; Marley is a character who is meticulous and careful. However, Maze insists on saddling Marley with a stock plot about the damage being wrought to his family outside the prison walls. It serves a way to give the character an emotional grounding, but it feels very cliché and straightforward.

For all the richness of theme and idea, the actual flow and structure of Maze feels a little too straightforward in places. The film is obviously modelled on historical events, but Burke frames them all in ways that evoke the expectations of the genre. As clever as it is to use Close to suggest that the entire social system of Northern Ireland has become a giant self-regulating prison, there are moments when the film plays a little too easily into the suggestion that Close and Marley are two sides of the same coin. This is particularly true in scenes focusing on their families.

These beats undercut the effective and clinical nature of the movie’s other sequences, suggesting that Burke’s emotional distance from his lead characters is an accident, that his efforts to keep the audience at arm’s length from his subjects is counter to his intentions. Larry Marley is so compelling because he is so inscrutable, and every scene that tries to tie him into a stock family narrative erodes that effectiveness. Leads Tom Vaughan-Lawlor and Barry Ward are strong enough to carry the film without these heavy-handed touches, and they slow down the pacing of the film.

Still, allowing for these problems, Maze is a crafted with a great deal of care. It is a movie that suggests the labyrinthine traps extend beyond the walls of the eponymous institution, wondering whether it is possible to escape a state of mind.

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