It’s Redford vs. Gandolfini in The Last Castle!
The last castle of the title is a United States Military Prison, one that was originally constructed during the Civil War and which resembles a castle, but with one big difference. Castles were originally designed to keep people from entering. The purpose of this castle is to keep people from leaving.
Colonel Ed Winter (James Gandolfini) is the prison’s commandant, a martinet who has never served in war but who keeps a collection of bullets and weapons in his office. Eugene Irwin (Robert Redford) is the newest inmate. Irwin was a highly respected general until he disobeyed a presidential order and eight of his men died as a result. Irwin has been stripped of his rank and sentenced to ten years. He tells Winter that he just wants to do his time and then go home. That’s fine with Winter, until he overhears Irwin disparaging his collection of battlefield memorabilia.
At first, Irwin tries to lay low. Even when he sees firsthand that Winter is a sadist who manipulates the inmates and who isn’t above ordering his guards to kill an inmate in order to make a point, Irwin tries to stay uninvolved. But eventually, Irwin’s natural military instincts kick in and he leads the prisoners in a revolt against Col. Winter.
The Last Castle requires a healthy suspension of disbelief. Irwin brings the inmates together by reminding them that they were once soldiers and that, even when serving time in a military prison, they’re apart of a grand tradition of soldiers who have been court-martialed. He soon has them saluting and standing at attention and walking in formation. The movie overlooks the fact that most of the prisoners were sentenced to the prison by men much like General Irwin. The idea that all of them are just waiting for someone to once again start barking orders at them just doesn’t seem plausible. Instead, it seems more likely the Irwin, as a former general, would be the least popular inmate in a prison that’s full of enlisted men who feel that they were screwed over the army. In the end, Irwin asks the prisoners to sacrifice a lot but, in the end, it doesn’t matter how heroically he’s framed in each scene or how much the music swells on the soundtrack, Iwin’s rebellion seems like its more about ego than anything else. Even if it means getting rid of Col. Winter, would any of the inmates realistically be willing to die for Eugene Irwin?
At the same time, The Last Castle is worth watching just to see James Gandolfini face off against Robert Redford. Gandolfini plays his role with the type of neurotic energy that only a method actor is capable of capturing while Redford is his typical move star self. The contrast between their two styles of acting translates well into the contrast between Winter and Irwin’s philosophy of leadership. Among the inmates, Mark Ruffalo and Clifton Collins, Jr. both have early roles. Of the two, Ruffalo gets to play the only character in the film with a hint of moral ambiguity and he runs with it. Clifton Collins, Jr., meanwhile, plays a character whose fate will be obvious to anyone who has ever seen a film before. The Last Castle has its moment but it’s never a surprising movie.
The Last Castle ends with a spontaneous display of patriotism, one that is effective but also feels implausible and out-of-place. It’s the perfect way to sum up this frustrating but occasionally diverting film.