Pros: Anne Heche and Joaquin Phoenix act their hearts out!
Cons: Malaysia couldn't be this bad, could it?
Three young American males are in Malaysia to soak up some sun and enjoy themselves on a vacation. They occasionally smoke some hashish and carouse with a few of the willing local native women. They appear to be just having a good time and not causing any trouble.
A mishap involving a rented bicycle leads to an unforeseen string of tragic events. When the bicycle is not returned, the Malaysian police are summoned to get the bicycle back to its rightful owner. One of the men, Lewis (Joaquin Phoenix), is charged with possession of over 100 grams of hashish, which is discovered during a search of his rented beach house, making him guilty of drug trafficking under the laws of Malaysia. His two American friends, Sheriff (Vince Vaughn) and Tony (David Conrad) have already left the country so Lewis alone is sentenced to death as a 'dealer'.
However, there is hope. If his friends will come back to Malaysia and take responsibility for their part in the hashish buying, each person will be given a three year sentence in Panang prison. Panang prison is a 'third world prison' where many prisoners are beaten and become sick with various diseases. If the two Americans do not return, Lewis will undoubtedly receive the death sentence.
Beth (Anne Heche), representing the interests of Lewis as his 'attorney', begs Tony and Sheriff to go back to Malaysia. Much of the story deals with the moral dilemma of facing one's own possible death for the sake of saving a friend from certain death. Beth only has a little over a week to persuade Tony and Sheriff to return. Beth simultaneously has a difficult time persuading the press from releasing the story internationally, for reasons I won't go into.
Anne Heche was a joy to watch and this is the best performance I have seen from her. She is capable of displaying a wide range of emotions convincingly and passionately. She was very believable and authentic. Unfortunately, too much of the story occurs in the United States. I began to wonder if anyone was going to 'return to paradise' before the movie ended.
Many unusual location shots made the wait to return to paradise bearable. The loneliness of a big American city was well portrayed on several occasions. [I know the city was New York City, but the parts of the city which were shown are parts with which I am unacquainted.]
While the hopelessness of Panang prison was convincingly shown, we never are shown very much of the paradise side of Malaysia. Philosophically, if one is imprisoned in horrible conditions, what does it matter if paradise is nearby? One cannot enjoy paradise when paradise is always outside and constant misery is inside. The themes of 'injustice'/'blind justice' are not as well dramatized in this film as they were in the films Midnight Express or Papillion. However, the various moods expressed by Anne Heche and the courtroom and prison performances of Joaquin Phoenix make this film a truly touching and moving experience.
*This film will not do anything to boost Malaysian tourism but it might persuade some of us to join Amnesty International. That is socially constructive.