The Letter Room

The 33-minute prison short film The Letter Room was the final film shown this year in the package of Oscar-nominated live action short films.

In reading a little about the film after the fact, I see it consistently described as a “comedy,” “dark comedy,” “comedy-drama,” etc. Interesting, because I experienced it as almost totally a drama. I suppose looking back there were quirky little things, some moments of humor, things to make you smile, but not to where I thought of it as primarily a comedy. It seemed like a serious human story to me.

The central character of the film is Richard, a prison employee who has just been transferred to the “letter room.” It is his job to examine all incoming and outgoing inmate mail.

Of course some of that is to make sure there are no drugs, weapons, etc. being sent into the prison, but he also has to monitor the actual content of the correspondence. According to the law, prison officials may only read the bare minimum of such letters to be confident that they do not pertain to anything prohibited (for example, imagine someone writing to a prisoner about coordinating an escape attempt, or a prisoner writing to his people outside to arrange a hit on a witness), but may not read beyond that. (You may recall the scene in Casino where Ace describes the cat and mouse game of FBI agents surveilling Nicky and having to turn their phone tap recording devices off whenever a conversation seemed to have nothing to do with illegal activities.)

Richard is presented as a good-hearted fellow, sympathetic to an extent toward the prisoners, not one of those who delights in making their misery even more miserable. Where he can, within the rules, he’ll do little kindnesses for them. For someone working in a prison he’s a little on the soft side, many would say too much so.

He tries to handle his letter room job as responsibly as he can, but to some extent he succumbs to the obvious temptation to read other people’s mail. He tries not to, because he knows it’s against the rules, not to mention an ethical violation, but here and there he strays into reading beyond what is allowed (or probably beyond what is allowed, given the unavoidable fuzziness of the rules).

He becomes especially fascinated by the correspondence between a young prisoner on death row—a convicted murderer—and his girlfriend on the outside. He’s touched by the letters from the woman, the letters of friendship, support, romance, eroticism, and commitment. The prisoner himself seems undeserving of such a woman; besides being a murderer, he is unremittingly hostile to Richard and everyone else, seemingly intent on manifesting no human side, allowing no human connection. If Richard is arguably too soft and at risk for getting himself in trouble because of it, this fellow is at the opposite extreme.

Richard finds himself more and more drawn in to their relationship, to how the kind of woman he infers she is from her letters (intelligent, emotionally deep—not some sub-literate, druggie loser or whatever you would expect) could be so attached to someone like this prisoner.

His obsession gets to the point where he feels—against his better judgment and certainly forbidden—that he must reach out to her, must meet her in person.

Why? I’m not sure he himself knows. To warn her away? To discourage her from wasting her life, throwing away all she has to offer emotionally on an unrepentant, vicious murderer? To offer her some kind of help? To better understand the prisoner and her relationship with him? Because he himself has fallen in love with her through being able to see the side of herself that she shows in her letters?

I would think it’s primarily just a strong curiosity, a fascination with this person that he so far has only had a chance to know through the written word. Like if there were an opportunity to meet and get to know in real life your favorite character in your favorite novel. You know, what would the flesh and blood version of this character be like, and how compatibly would you interact with them?

The story takes some surprising and interesting turns from there.

I wouldn’t say I loved The Letter Room, but I’d give it a clear thumbs up. I probably wouldn’t have picked it as my favorite of the five Oscar-nominated live action shorts of this year, but it would be no worse than around the middle of that strong group. I was drawn in by the story, I cared about the characters, and it gave me plenty to think about as far as the whole phenomenon of incarceration, how prisoners and prison employees relate to each other, how prisoners and their people on the outside relate to each other, when you can and can’t manifest your humanity, kindness, and vulnerability in peculiar, unhealthy, unnatural circumstances like those of prison, etc. Solid film.

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