A man in jail narrates a tale of crime and romance in Keir O’Donnell’s Marmalade.
Movies centred around are plentiful. There’s comfort to be found in the predictable formula and structure. The expected beats include the planning while the characters outline their reasons for being involved and the eventual execution going awry forcing the characters to improvise while using the additional skills that have hopefully been neatly set up throughout the story. Talented actors and filmmakers can work wonderfully within the comfortable framework to present something memorable that feels original.
Marmalade both is and isn’t your typical heist movie. It attempts to be unique by the heist being in the past and the subject of a conversation between cellmates. Baron (Joe Keery) recounts the events leading to his incarceration to his cellmate Otis (Aldie Hodge) as they discuss escaping prison together. The uniqueness -or at least uncommonness- comes from the heist having already failed and framing the drama around how that happened.
Joe Keery impresses as Baron. He capably leads the film despite his character being largely swept along by events. He does have agency but so much of what he does is prompted by the influence of others. Keery displays believable compassion in caring for his ailing mother (Susan Brava) and a general sense of perpetual confusion as he sleepwalks through life. Baron’s motivation to turn to crime is easily understood as it’s tied to affording the escalating costs of his mother’s medication. It presents him as the victim of an uncaring and broken system that doesn’t support him and justifies his desire to rebel against that system and take what he feels he is owed.
Encouraging his rebellious tendencies is Marmalade (Camila Morrone); a force of nature who captures Baron’s attention immediately and blows the naive young man’s mind with her outgoing personality and free-spirited personality. Camila Morrone plays this brilliantly. She is every bit the captivating presence that many would be drawn to and others would be terrified of. Baron is both and she acts as something of a drug to him that addicts him early on and keeps him on the hook because he can’t get enough for her. She offers him the promise of a glamorous and exciting life as well as the opportunity to create fun by hitting back at the unfair system. Marmalade easily preys on his desire to help his mother and grooms an obedient accomplice. There’s depth to the character beyond the suggested shallow role she occupies that becomes clear. Joe Keery and Camila Morrone have great chemistry and the relationship founded on Marmalade being the dominant figure works really well.
Baron telling the story to Otis allows for some fun flourishes such as leaning into the idea of Baron being an unreliable narrator. His tendency to mispronounce words and not fully understand certain situations gives the tale some flavour as it’s clear he isn’t expressing it correctly. Otis encouraging Baron to reflect on the events and rushing him when he falls into tangents that don’t interest him makes for another effective use of the framing device that allows Otis to be part of the story by helping to shape how it’s told to him. This makes it much more than a collection of flashbacks broken by a framing conversation and injects character into the story being told. It also goes some of the way towards disguising what is otherwise a fairly by-the-numbers heist story.
The film does take some turns as it progresses and not always in expected directions. The plotting is clunky in places and characters bizarrely vocalise developments that are already obvious. In general, the dialogue is snappy and clever so it stands out when unnecessary exposition outlines things that are already clear. It’s perhaps a symptom of focusing so much on building uncertainty in the storytelling that Keir O’Donnell feels the need to make sure nobody in the audience is left behind but the storytelling is otherwise smart enough to lead the viewer along. Some of these shortcomings are disguised by strong pacing and a stylish visual aesthetic that keeps the viewer engaged.
Marmalade‘s clunky plotting leads to a messy third act that doesn’t entirely work though the narrative gymnastics employed to make it land as well as it does are impressive to behold. Part of its downfall is attempting to juggle two storytelling styles that have to merge at some point to convincingly be important parts of a singular piece. The joins can be seen and some of the departures from the expected seem to be there for the sake of shocking the audience rather than organically weaved into the story. There’s still plenty to recommend but the scrip would have benefited from at least another pass.
A stylish and engaging heist movie with strong performances and snappy dialogue that defies expectations.
- the uncommon storytelling allowing the film to stand out
- Joe Keery impressing in the role of Baron
- Camila Morrone playing Marmalade brilliantly
- strong chemistry between Joe Keery and Camila Morrone
- impressive flourishes in the framing device
- snappy and clever dialogue
- strong pacing
- the stylish visual aesthetic
- clunky plotting
- characters vocalising developments that are already obvious
- a messy third act that doesn’t entirely work
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