The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Cell 211

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article Prison films have several inbuilt advantages. They’re cheap, require a single location (sometimes the real thing), and a limited cast. The stories can almost be expected to write themselves: a fresh inmate is subjected to a series of humiliations, initiations and challenges; rules are explained, hardened characters with askew faces tell their stories, and the authorities are challenged. Claustrophobia is a given and the nature of the place allows plenty of telling rather than showing - lively implied back-stories, twists and turns; plans are hatched and time passes.

Many prison films serve life sentences, taking their characters through the long haul: The Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), and the most un-Steve McQueen of Steve McQueen films, Papillon (1973) - which at 153 minutes gives you a fairly good feeling of what ‘life’ might actually feel like. The horror of the film comes with the realisation that the prisoner has been nibbled away to the crust, and his continued attempts to escape are really a form of mad compulsion. There is no freedom left to escape to, and, by the end of the film, no world waiting for him, even if he does manage to navigate his raft through the thousands of miles of ocean. This is the horrific realisation also shown in The Shawshank Redemption, where freedom is partly to be wished for, and partly to be dreaded, eventually proving fatal to one freed inmate who fails to survive his own release.

More recent prison films such as A Prophet (2009) and Bronson (2008) are about prison not as a place of confinement and punishment so much as an opportunity for self-realisation. A Prophet sees its protagonist Malik take full advantage of the various adult education classes offered by prison. Alongside the university of crime which teaches him ruthlessness and the ability to kill a man with just a razorblade, he also takes language courses, and his irresistible rise to power as a criminal force to be reckoned with is as much to do with his exploiting of his linguistic abilities as his capacity for sudden and overwhelming violence.

Such violence and linguistic ability are also on display in the underrated Bronson, a film which perhaps suffered by being compared with Chopper (2000), as well as by sharing the shelf with the rather laddish fascination with the criminal netherworld seen in the boom of ‘true crime’ tell-alls. Both Chopper and Bronson are based on autobiographies by real life criminals, whose boastful wit and (apparently) refreshing disregard for scruples about not hurting people give their readership the illusion of privileged insight and inclusion into a world they would actually be too soft to enter in real life. Our vicarious thrills are dished out and we marvel at what jolly characters these men are when, if we were to in fact meet them in the proverbial dark alley, we would likely be very unhappy indeed. For Charlie Bronson, prison is a playground for an unruly bad boy. He’s the sort of kid who would play truant but then spend the whole day hanging around the perimeter of the school: the hard man who is lost in the real world and so makes a theatre of his disobedience. His assumed name is a grab for the glamour of the fictional hard man, the Hollywood violence that is celebrated as a higher power, and which goes against such petty considerations as the law.

As far as universities of crime go, Cell 211 offers a crash course. Over 24 hours Juan Oliver has to learn how to be a prisoner, talk like a prisoner, behave like a prisoner, or die. The ironies abound, however. Juan is actually a prison guard who has been mistaken for a prisoner in the midst of a riot, so for him every prisoner is a guard. He succumbs to a parody of the initiation process at the hands of his fellow inmates. Like Andy Dufresne, and Alex deLarge in A Clockwork Orange, Juan has to strip, but for him it is under the scrutiny of the entire prison. Although intended as a dehumanizing and humiliating process for Juan it is literally self-defining, as he gains his prison nickname from Malamadre because he’s not wearing any underpants. His performance becomes more and more ambitious as the film goes on. He doesn’t just try to blend in the background and wait for the SWAT teams (or their Spanish equivalent) to start firing tear gas. Rather he attempts to sway the course of the riot and in so doing puts himself closer to the fascinating Malamadre, played with tough-nut aplomb by Luis Tosar.

The audiences who appraise his performance are threefold: there is us, the watchful and suspicious prisoners, and the almost equally suspicious prison authorities, who watch the CCTV images with growing concern. Juan’s is a performance that increasingly becomes real as his friendship with Malamadre deepens, and he begins to recognise the iniquities and injustices routinely meted out to the prisoners. His own actions also see him compromised: how can you perform cutting someone’s ear off when you are actually cutting someone’s ear off? Now with blood on his hands, Oliver’s fate becomes inextricably bound to that of the prisoners.

The education he undergoes is to some extent also political. The state is either fickly inept and ineffectual - the negotiator is a small unassuming figure whom Malamadre mocks pitilessly and who, in fact, has very little sway over events - or they are brutally violent and out of control. The Dick Cheney of the piece is a veteran prison guard, Ultrilla who interrogates a man in hospital by stepping on his swollen spleen and who, after swilling half a bottle of whisky, goes out into the yard to lay into the prisoners’ families (who are trying to find out what is happening to their loved ones) with a baton. Amongst them is Juan’s heavily pregnant wife, whom Ultrilla beats to the ground with a blow that proves fatal, not only to her, but to himself and Juan. Juan is no longer a guard pretending to be a prisoner; he becomes the leader of the riot.

The authorities duplicitously reveal Juan’s real identity to Malamadre, but their friendship is now so strong that it survives even this. Everything has become topsy-turvy: something shown literally at the end of the film when Juan’s last view of Malamadre is upside down. The film should be applauded for not backing away from a grim conclusion, and its view of the authorities is likewise radically dark. The series of interviews that bookend the film are obviously an enquiry of some kind into the origins and progress of the riot, but by now it is unlikely we trust any official expressions of regret.

Whether such darkness will survive in Paul Haggis' planned Hollywood remake (rumoured to be starring either Edward Norton or Ryan Gosling as Juan) is yet to be seen. Regardless, Cell 211 is a worthy entry into the prison genre that exceeds its premise with wit and invention.

This Alternate Take was published on September 05, 2011.

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