This thriller has a trim and simple plot over which it plays a desolate magic:
Lance Guest stars as Vince, a man who is rightfully imprisoned for his part in a jewel heist. Despite swearing to stand by her man, his wife Hope (Penelope Ann Miller) soon shacks up with an avant garde country star DK (Dwight Yoakam) who writes a song celebrating their love.2 When this proves to be a smash on the charts, Vince vows to find a way to escape prison and win his girl back. The only problem is securuty has been stepped up after several high profile escapes, and there is no way out. Enter the Doc (Roky Erickson), a lifer whose eccentric practices suggest he can help Vince.
This much is established in the first ten minutes, with little fuss or fanfare. The swift arrival at
this juncture leads us to suspect a regulation prison drama, as our hero avoids survives lunch room staredowns and shower assassins. But we get something else when the Doc shows up. This isn't the wise and weary mentor we expect, for the Doc is somewhere between a poet preacher and magus. Through a series of incoherent, electric Erickson rants, we discover the Doc's escape plan for Vince: He will teach him to teleport through the walls.
'Vince, according to the law you deserve to be here. You did it. But there are higher laws. The rites of love give you access to more transient powers. Belief and control of this will come if you listen. I know, I know, you hear vulnerable sounds. The room has a changed timbre, with ideas wedged in a funnel and allowed to run. An unusual combination of textures is before your eyes. It makes every sound visible. Every now and again, as you breathe, allow a memory of your girl to bleed. Like the time you met, the time you approached her in the interval at the movies and said Will you have a drink with me?
You'll be confused. You'll be real confused. But these ideas float in a Xenon mist, and are only visible if you look straight ahead. No-one else here has this perspective, so they can't steal them. Classic military strategy. Steady. Don't fight the chair. Gung-ho iguanas tell me to relax. A thousand distractions, but you'll walk through the stone. Meanwhile, a beta unit that looks like yourself will warm your bed at night. Olefactory senses will guide you. Soon you'll be making it up to one another over warm beer at Silver Lake. The defences are like turrets. You'll dodge past them, a ghost, keeping radio silence in the fourth dimension. I'll jam the frequencies of nether ghosts while you dance on through the caves of the mind... shooting your way out through the walls like light. A long and fruitful life awaits with your little sweetie. Possibly.'
'Why possibly, Doc?'
'There is another possibility of course: Vince passes through the wall. His ghost walks twenty miles to her house. He sees her crying and thinks it is for him. It is not. It is because she is being haunted by her con ex-husband. Because it hinges on this: If your love is as true as you say, and hers is too, then the auditorium will clap your miraculous escape. But if not, then you are the stalker in their bad dreams.'
With this exchange, the Doc sets up a thought in our minds that it takes Vince a whole film to consider: that his wife was never supposed to be with him. Their love is over. Vince's Hope on the outside is someone else's, and should be.
Time passes. Vince practices. His teleportation appears successful. But increasingly, our sympathies are drawn away from him; Erickson's witchy tones don't ever stop, they drip over the images like a devil's treacle, or haunted molasses, or a wired broth. The frantic actions conveyed by his voice suggest all too well that he, not Vince, is the only one of them to truly feel hot emotion; Vince seems to slip away, his moral compass gone, his face a bland shadow. Our protagonist is essentially rubbed out of his own narrative halfway through, leaving only the memory in his wife's head of a failed first husband. And he disappears as if teleported not only out of prison but out of the world, and we are left hoping, in a final scene of domestic bliss between Hope and her DK, that Vince cannot touch her ever again.3
The Prison Rodeo Directed by Shye Phillips Written by Tom Tipley Produced by Shye Phillips, Martin Scorcese Starring Lance Guest Penelope Ann Miller Roky Erickson Dwight Yoakam Warner Brother Pictures US/UK Release Date: March 1990 Tagline: 'When Inside is Outside, is Outside In?'
1. 'The Slack Chariot: Cinema As 1000 Messages' esseay by Painter Williams, Times Literary Supplement, Sept 17, 1995.
2. The song includes the fevered quatrain that gives the film its title: 'Don't worry about him right now/He'll be starring in the prison rodeo right now/ You can call his name if you please/ But it's not him in your bathtub sha-sha-shaking your knees'
3. A 1993 sequel (Prison Rodeo II, 1993, starring Guest and Phoebe Cates) explored events after the first film, with Vince haunting his ex-wife in her new home in New Mexico. It played like Jerry Zucker's Ghost (1990) if Moore had been horrified throughout and Swayze had no Goldberg to filter his confusions through, comically or otherwise.