From the get-go, everything we see around single-mother Maxine (Kate Beckinsale) is broken. She grafts multiple day and night jobs to pay off a mortgage on a house plastered with cracks of bad memories. Cigarette burns on the carpet mark the night she had to peel her alcoholic mother off the floor, and fist-shaped dents in the walls from her father Max (Brian Cox) are moulded into the foundation of the dysfunctional family. Even her ex Tyler (Tyson Ritter), is an abusive addict and washed-up Vegas musician who embodies the failed American dream. In the background of her kitchen where she splits her son Ezra’s epilepsy medication in half and adds water to an almost empty jar of jam, Las Vegas memorabilia drinking glasses stand empty.
But Maxine does her best to protect Ezra from a broken future by sheltering him from the harm of Tyler and the truth about Max’s haunting past as a hitman. After Max reveals he is dying of pancreatic cancer and can be released on house arrest, Maxine – not so warmly – welcomes her dad, or “tenant” as she bluntly corrects, into her home and a struggle for reconciliation unfolds.
Screenwriter Mark Bacci poses the question of whether her armour of strength over forgiveness harms Maxine more than it protects her. The character arc is elevated by Beckinsale’s outstanding performance as a daughter who, toughened by the weight of an abuse and addiction-riddled childhood, fights the urge to appear weak in front of her dad in a scene where the pair shed light on their dark past. Beckinsale strikes a skilful balance of restraint and vulnerability which is a delight to watch besides Cox who surrenders himself to Max – a man coded to communicate in violence, now stands with his palms pressed together, begging for Maxine’s forgiveness with an offer of ‘“clean money.”
Bacci and Hardwicke present some interesting nuances on the issue of violence. Maxine is motivated to “break the cycle of violence” that bled the joy from her childhood dry, and Max bonds with Ezra by teaching him the basics of fighting. It’s in violence, during a boxing session with Max’s old friend Hank (Ernie Hudson), when we finally see a (blink and you’ll miss it) glimpse of Ezra’s pent-up pain that he masks with jokey remarks in conversations.
It’s this flicker of feelings where the film’s flaws lie. More time could’ve been given to exploring characters’ emotions – particularly with such strong performances from the cast. There’s a scene where Ezra calls an ambulance after Max unexpectedly falls to the floor but the scene is cut short before Convery gets to process Ezra’s emotions. Any tension that builds in this nerve-wracking moment quickly deflates and similar frustrating tonal shifts are littered throughout the film.
Though the film doesn’t offer satisfying emotional catharsis, it makes up for it with its thematic exploration of forgiveness, redemption and mortality. Prisoner’s Daughter is grounded in an honest realism about the cycle of violence and abuse that, in a bittersweet but expected way, comes full circle on the characters’ past, present and futures.