The Letter Room (2020)
Director: Elvira Lind
Screenwriter: Elvira Lind
Starring: Oscar Isaac, John Douglas Thompson, Brian Petsos, Eileen Galindo, Alia Shawkat
The Letter Room is the 2021 Oscars’ most star-studded short film. Oscar Isaac, known for starring in the most recent Star Wars trilogy as well as a number of critical hits, is the focus for each and every frame of The Letter Room’s 30 minute runtime.
Written and directed by documentarian Elvira Lind, whose spouse happens to be the star she focuses her short film upon, The Letter Room oozes the same class of a mainstream feature film, each scene shot crisply and well blocked, the narrative cleverly constructed, the performances strong enough to make convincing characters even within the limitations of the film’s reduced runtime.
Isaac plays a corrections officer; one who seems to fulfil all the tropes of your typical on-screen jailhouse hero – he listens to the inmates, he tries hard at his job but is more fair and balanced than his workmates, he offers favours and humanity to those who need it, and he then goes further to find the humanity in each of them. Like Tom Hanks’ Paul Edgecomb in The Green Mile, Isaac’s Richard is extraordinary within the tough but fairly ordinary life he leads. As is to be expected at this stage in Isaac’s reputable career, he is wholly engaging, gifting his character a likeable tone to his voice and bringing forth the little bits of spark from beneath the almost cartoonish moustache he sports.
It is through him that we exclusively experience the world, the camera focused on Isaac for almost every moment and the narrative locked onto his perspective. He deals with death row inmates as well as the office culture of his penitentiary behind the scenes, comically coming into contact with a series of erotic letters to one prisoner that he takes a particular interest in.
Living alone and feasting on microwave meals each evening, Richard finds a spark of inspiration in the letters he reads, a reason to go to work. As if accessing something much more sordid, he hides the pleasure he feels from reading them behind teenager-like defensiveness and evasiveness to his boss, and side-glances at the prisoner who receives them. It has a comical edge, as does much of the movie, and Isaac’s character and performance are the key factors in making this as engaging as possible within the confines of the story at its heart.
There are a few occasions in which the eye make-up and pristinely trimmed eyebrows of its star are apparent in such a way that you can’t help but to see Oscar Isaac beneath the moustache and his layers of characterisation. At no point does it feel like you’re watching a real person, more a Hollywood star playing a part, and it’s an issue that the film suffers from throughout – there is a genuine scarcity of true emotional resonance owing to how The Letter Room never fully immerses you in the world of its story, offering something relatively cartoonish in its place. It’s a film that has some things to say, but seems to have intentions away from any major political statement or artistic signature, bringing into focus the lives behind the faces on death row but offering little other than a darkly humorous office comedy otherwise, which works only to compound the feeling of disconnect apparent elsewhere.
With The Letter Room exist a number of top class elements, and the film as a whole must certainly be considered proof of Elvira Lind’s potential in the feature drama realm, so while there are a number of disconnects in the machinations of the film, this Live Action Short nominee at the 2021 Oscars has more than enough about it to be worth the small fee it takes to purchase it; The Letter Room an interesting experiment worth exploring for fans of Lind or Isaac in particular.