Review of Passion Play

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A washed-up jazz trumpeter falls for an angelic circus performer in this fantasy thriller from writer/director Mitch Glazer. Though Nate (Mickey Rourke) should deliver Lily (Megan Fox) to the wealthy, ruthless businessman that is Happy Shannon (played by Bill Murray), he chooses to risk his life and run away with her. Also starring Rhys Ifans and Kelly Lynch.
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Rating: R (language, sexuality, nudity, violence, brief drug use)
Length: 94 minutes
Release Date: May 8, 2011
Directed by: Mitch Glazer
Genre: Drama/Romance

"Passion Play" begins with down-on-his-luck jazz musician Nate (Mickey Rourke) being taken out to a deserted area by some mob goons for execution. This is because he has committed the high crime of sleeping with the wife of the head mob honcho Happy Shannon (Bill Murray). It seems like he has accepted his fate, but he gets a reprieve when a group of hunters in the area saves him.

Nate then wanders and stumbles upon Lily (Megan Fox), a woman who literally has wings on her back. This makes people regard her as a freak, and she is relegated to a circus sideshow where people are sure her wings are fake. From the moment he sees her, Nate is filled with a flurry of different emotions. He wants to protect her, love her, and at the same time exploit her. The love and protection come from his core, which aches for a real human connection. The exploitation comes from the fact that he knows Happy still wants him dead. He thinks if he can bring the beautiful Lily to him as a gift of sorts, perhaps Happy will cancel his death sentence.

The thought of trying to give another human to a mobster as payment for a crime she didn't commit is repugnant, yet Nate feels like it is his only chance at a new life. The ironic part is that as he gets to know Lily better, he realizes that she is the person he wants a new life with. Yet, the only way he can get his new life is to give her away, which leaves him with a very difficult set of choices to make.

Rourke reminds moviegoers once again why the demise of his career for more than a decade before his comeback is such a tragedy. He really is at his best in "Passion Play," making audiences feel the pain of Nate. There is one particularly poignant scene where a desperate Nate has to sell his trombone for some quick cash. The pain of having to sell the one thing that helps define him can be seen all over Rourke's face. In fact, there are so many years and layers of pain in his eyes that one may wonder if Rourke is simply acting or if the look comes from life experience. Either way, it is a chilling scene that further makes the audience root for this sad sack of a character.

That scene also brings up a question about identities, Nate's in particular. He is a jazz musician, for good or bad. Musicians are passionate people by nature, and taking away their prized instrument is tantamount to removing a limb. Can Nate really be him without his trumpet, without the ability to call himself a jazz musician anymore, since he can't play? The question is at the heart of "Passion Play," because the inner identity of Nate is at stake. Is he a man in love, a desperate man who is willing to sell a fragile woman to a mobster, or perhaps a good man at his core who needs redemption? The answers aren't always clear, which challenges the audience to try and answer the question instead of having it spoon-fed to them.

Murray is likewise excellent as the gangster Happy. This is his second collaboration with writer/director Mitch Glazer, and it shows. Murray has always been known primarily as a comic actor, but in recent years he has tried to show a more dramatic side. Glazer pulls out a fully dramatic performance from him, as if he knows exactly how to get Murray to perform. After directing him in the underrated Christmas caper "Scrooged," it is entirely possible that Glazer really did know the best way to get such a layered performance from him.

Finally, Fox leaves behind her roles that focus only on her body and gets a chance to really act here. Sure, her Lily does wear some cleavage-enhancing dresses, particularly once she becomes the "property" of Happy. However, the dresses are appropriate for where the character is and are not used gratuitously. It isn't easy to play a woman relegated to the role of a circus freak by her physical abnormality, but Fox does an admirable job.

Glazer takes a very unusual story and makes it plausible because of the redemption theme. All people have something they regret, an action or mistake they would love to take back. Since there is no time travel, the only way to get rid of the regret is forgiveness and redemption, which almost everyone can relate to. That is what makes "Passion Play" a good, relatable movie as well.