Forgiveness, Chance & the Death Penalty

When two strangers’ lives cross they ultimately changed forever — one waits on death row while the other is there to witness the execution. Take explores the complex feelings of forgiveness, chance and the death penalty.

The topic for any filmmaker’s first feature film is always going to be difficult to decide, but for writer-director, Charles Oliver, his ambitious debut film, Take, tackles some particularly pertinent issues about society and the notion of justice, including the controversial topic of the death penalty.

Take is a film bound to humanity and the complex feelings of suffering and forgiveness. It follows the lives of two strangers, Ana (Minnie Driver), and Saul (Jeremy Renner) whose lives converge in a horrifically tragic event. As two days unfold, one in the past and the one in present in a non-linear narrative, we see how Ana and Saul’s lives collided and became permanently interlinked.

Oliver was the founder and creative director of his own production company for eight years before selling the company in order to focus on his full-time, freelance-directing career and to make his first independent film. “When I was seven years old, a filmmaker invited my family on the road for three months driving a camper van through 32 states in America to make a documentary about rodeos and cowboys. I got the production bug on this trip, and ever since, I wanted to be involved in filmmaking.”

The dynamic nature of Take moving between the four separate worlds on the two different days creates an unexpected structure. As we follow Ana and Saul through the four distinct worlds we begin to understand the problems they face. In the past, Ana’s son Jesse, has just been expelled from school and unless she can find a night shift and tutor him, he will face going to a school for children with behaviour problems. On the same day, Saul is in a desperate situation — he needs to pay off his gambling debt and care for his ailing father. Saul is forced to undertake a risky task to make some quick cash. Facing a series of struggles, Saul ends up in a fateful moment of decision. Years later, we see Ana travelling through the desert to go to Saul’s execution. As Saul waits out the final hours of his life, both he and Ana are caught in the memory of the day when their lives crossed paths and changed. I have always been interested in the idea of strangers, how we interact with strangers and put together a whole human life just from a few details and also how a stranger can affect our lives. The other idea came from reading articles about people who have forgiven someone for something that seemed truly unforgivable. This idea combined with people who get consumed with revenge and the corrosive effect of that fascinated me and I wanted to explore that continuum.”

Take explores the time that passes between the conviction of Saul and when the death sentence is actually passed. The physical characteristics of Saul and Ana change and their former lives are juxtaposed with their harsh present situation. Both look weary and it is clear that the one moment when their lives interconnected has taken its toll. Renner as Saul and Driver as Ana both create profoundly moving performances, particularly Renner who elicits a sense of humanity from Saul even though he has committed horrendous crimes. To create the four distinct worlds that Saul and Ana inhabit, Oliver worked closely with the cinematographer, Tristan Whitman and production designer, Luke Freeborn in the three months of pre-production, working on everything from the colours of the worlds, to the camera movements. “We set up a very specific and very restricted ‘Bible’ to create those four worlds that we stuck to every single time. We decided that the camera movements in each world would be specific. For example, in Saul’s past we used hand held cameras with lots of movement. While in the present the shots were locked off and the camera hardly moved at all, to reflect the idea of a world of choices and consequences. In Ana’s present on her way to the prison we used very slight movements. In the past, in the school room and interacting with her husband we used smooth, controlled and typically Hollywood camera movements.” With an independent film budget, maintaining the strict elements in each world was sometimes a challenge, but Oliver had a remarkably swift and responsive art department who were equally vested in the vision and had great creative freedom. “When we were shooting Saul at the mini-storage facility, we were about to shoot and we had a pair of red lock cutters that he was using to cut a lock. My Art Director was out there frantically looking for some blue spray paint to quickly change the lock cutters from red to blue to fit in with Saul’s world in the past. This is really exciting on set as everyone had a copy of the ‘Bible’ and we were sharing the vision to create the four worlds. As Take has a non-linear narrative, the distinction between the four worlds is important so the viewer knows exactly where they are and I wanted the audience to be able to have a different emotional response to each world.”

Take interweaves the ideas of justice, the death penalty and forgiveness into a intensely affecting story of humanity and ultimately redemption. The concept of restorative justice, which emphasises repairing the harm caused by criminal behaviour by a cooperative process between the victim and the perpetrator is explored: “I think that our prison systems in America are truly broken. When people go to prison they feel like they have offended against the state. Sometimes they may not meet the person outside the crime if they don’t come to court. They spend twenty years in prison angry at the state for putting them in prison rather than connecting their crime to the person they have affected. There is no emotional accountability, therapy or change, which is supposed to be the idea behind a justice system. The restorative justice programme is the most radical and effective programme that our prisons have seen in decades.” Take is part of a rare breed of films that stays with you and leaves you thinking about the whole nature of humanity and the courage it takes to forgive the unforgivable.

Take was released by Liberation Entertainment in September 2008.

Shona Fairweather