“Unbroken,” Reviewed: King of Pain.

Jack O'Connell in 'Unbroken.' (Universal Pictures)

Jack O’Connell in ‘Unbroken.’ (Universal Pictures)

Years of watching movies containing scenes of torture have taught me that the most effective way to do it – i.e., the kind that hurts the most – involves giving the victim an occasional rest. By letting them relax and recover, they’re unable to become inured to the pain they’re experiencing.

Now, I don’t know if that’s true and I hope to never find out; but regardless, there’s a lesson in there that applies to storytelling in general, and to Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken (rated PG-13) in particular. The film, as you may have heard, presents the story of the early years of Louis Zamperini, a second-generation Italian immigrant (born in Olean, NY, by the way – I looked it up) who competed in the 1936 Olympics and set a record-breaking pace for the final lap in the 5,000-meter event; who became a bombardier in World War II and survived a crash-landing over water that left him adrift in a life boat for 47 days; and who subsequently endured two years of misery as a prisoner in a Japanese POW camp.

Each of these milestones in Zamperini’s life could have made for their own stand-alone movie, and with Jolie’s casting of Jack O’Connell – a young British actor, previously impressive playing violent punks in Eden Lake (2008) and Harry Brown (2009) – I’d gladly watch any of them. O’Connell excellently conveys Zamperini’s inexhaustible grit that allowed him to endure years of adversity, pain and abuse in those life-altering trials.

By collecting all those trials into for one extended feature, however, Jolie – working from a screenplay of impressive pedigree by Joel and Ethan Coen, William Nicholson and Richard LaGravenese – forgets to heed the lesson mentioned above. So much happens to our hero that we never get a chance to contemplate how he could survive – we can’t catch our breath. O’Connell’s never allowed to show us the grace moments in which he recovers his strength, loses and regains his faith in his own endurance, or simply copes emotionally with all he has to go through. There’s no time for the film to show us everything it wants to, and also present Zamperini as anything other than a Terminator. To paraphrase the poet Chumbawamba, he gets knocked down and he gets up again; lather, rinse, repeat.

During the POW years, the film allows minor fissures to form in the otherwise relentless focus on Zamperini’s ordeals – not in Zamperini’s character, but that of the commander of his POW camp, Mutsuhiro “Bird” Watanabe, played by the Japanese actor and rock musician Miyavi as an enigmatic sadist determined to break the spirit of his Olympian prisoner. If Zamperini’s heroism takes on a metronomic quality after a while, his captor conveys an almost jazzy malevolence in his few big screen moments: His arrival is never good news, but the way in which he presents his menace is leavened with unpredictable traces of insecurity and even sympathy.

(Ironically, the film’s end credits tell us that years after the war, Zamperini found forgiveness for his torturers and returned to Japan to meet them. Watanabe was the sole man who refused to take that meeting; that’s a coda that should have made it to the film.)

Unfortunately, this villain isn’t around enough to imbue Unbroken with more of that emotional variety; and it never rubs off on the rest of the picture. What persists is a sense of noble suffering, an idea visually reinforced by the absolutely gorgeous camera work from cinematographer Roger Deakins, a fixture in most of the Coen Brothers’ movies. Whether he’s showing us young Louis getting beat up by the immigrant-hating kids in his neighborhood, lost-at-sea Louis staring into the unrelenting sun or POW Louis living in forced squalor, Deakins takes an almost painterly approach that finds beauty amid all that pain. Deakins is up for his 12th Oscar for his work here – one of the film’s few nominations – and he’s never won before. I’d give it to him this time. He’s endured enough.