Unlike the endless stream of British prison films using a template set over 30 years ago, the French are successfully flexible with their tales of brutality inside prison and out
Cell 211 (18) ****
Directed by: Daniel Monzn
Starring: Luis Tosar, Alberto Ammann, Antonio Resines, Marta Etura
THERE'S been a spate of British prison movies of late, all them indebted to Alan Clarke's uncompromising Scum, all of them blandly predictable in their grittily authentic acting and inmates-versus-screws antagonisms. What the makers of these films have often lacked is either the artistic chops to elevate the material into great cinema (the way that Jacques Audiard did with French hit A Prophet), or the boldness to deploy a smack-your-forehead-simple spin on the genre that might really unleash the ruthless potential of a prison movie in a genuinely gut-punching way. The Spanish thriller Cell 211 goes the latter route, but in the process achieves some of the credibility of the former approach. That's quite a trick, but director Daniel Monzn demonstrates a remarkable capacity for blending high concepts with high-minded ideas in a direct, no-nonsense way.
The film's hook really is brilliantly streamlined. On the day before he officially starts work, rookie prison guard Juan Oliver (Argentine actor Alberto Ammann) turns up to the job, keen to learn the ropes and make a good impression. While being shown round the somewhat ramshackle facilities, a piece of falling masonry knocks him unconscious and before his new colleagues can get him to the infirmary, a riot erupts, resulting in Jaun being left in the titular cell just as the authorities lose control of building. Waking up only to find he has no way of escaping, he realises that nobody inside yet knows he's a guard, so he makes a snap decision to pretend to be an inmate in order to stay alive long enough to be rescued.
It's the sort of conceit John Carpenter might once have come up with in his late 1970s/early 1980s heyday, and Monzn sells us on it straight away, ratcheting up the tension by showing Juan thinking on his feet and putting into practice what little knowledge of the job he's managed to glean from his abortive tour. Getting rid of his laces, his wedding ring, his belt, his wallet (basically anything that will identify him as an outsider) he throws himself into the maelstrom of a new, lawless prison system in which he not only has to convincingly inveigle his way into a gang of murderers, rapists, addicts and thieves, but has to cannily try to establish and covertly maintain contact with the authorities who don't really know him from Adam.
Here, Monzn kicks things up a gear by forcing Juan to earn the trust of the riot's psychopathic instigator, Malmadre, a bad mother in jail for life and determined to use this ruckus to force his corrupt jailers to provide better conditions. Played by Luis Tosar, the bearded drug baron from Michael Mann's hard-edged Miami Vice, he's a fascinating creation: bald, goateed, muscular and scarily intense, but also weirdly protective of those in his inner circle, which, after some initiative-showing gutsiness on Juan's part, soon includes him too.
The film throws in further complications for Juan by saddling him with a heavily pregnant wife who finds herself in harm's way after rushing to the prison and getting caught up in an external protest against prison conditions. As with the recent French thriller Point Blank, this increasingly hoary plot device mars proceedings a little by once again perpetuating the movie myth that a woman's life is somehow not worth as much if she's not with child. That being said, the film at least makes an effort to use this device in an interesting way to interrogate notions of masculinity in the film. Jaun is presented very much as the sensitive, caring husband, but as his loyalties are tested and he finds himself on the receiving end of the kind of abuse his new job would have expected him to carry out, his survival instincts kick in and he displays a capacity for savagery that's as great as that shown by Malamar.
The film works in a political angle too by having Malamar take a trio of Basque terrorists hostage in order to get the government's attention. He knows full well that Eta reprisals will be brutal should anything happen to them, and he also knows this will force the government's hand, something the film turns into a punchy critique of the culture of brutality that pervades all aspects of life, both inside and outside the penal system. Mercifully, Monzn doesn't allow any of this to become didactic; he's working in broad strokes, to be sure, but his touch is light enough to give us a hint of bigger things going on without detracting from the narrative at hand. And that narrative really does grip like a vice, especially as Juan gets sucked deeper and deeper into a situation completely outwith his control. It's confident, ingenious stuff – and streets ahead of anything Britain's genre film-makers seem able to produce.