Polished and brutal in equal measure, but unsubtle and contrived nonetheless.
The prison is one of the more potent backdrops of onscreen drama, and the list of iconic jailhouse films is longer than most attention spans. The melting-pot mixture of enforced containment, community and introspection offers a fertile context for stories that run from the personal to the political, the poetic to the gut-punch visceral.
The award-winning Spanish thriller Cell 211 is more of the latter. Hoping to make a good impression before taking up a job as a prison officer, youthful Juan (Alberto Ammann) asks for a tour of his new workplace – which, as luck would have it, occurs during a full-blown prison riot. Abandoned by his employers in the eponymous cell, Juan is soon brought before the ringleader of the uprising, the towering Malamadre (Luis Tosar), with only his wits for protection.
It’s a rather unlikely set-up, and it isn’t helped along by Juan seeming a little too cool and resourceful under pressure. Likewise, despite a remarkably idiosyncratic performance from Tosar, which veers from menace to unnerving warmth, Malamadre is simply too trusting of his new companion, whose magazine-model appearance makes him stick out among the prison’s cavalcade of criminals, consisting of cocky Colombians, Basque separatists and cartoonish, mumbling goons.
Such local flavour is welcome, entangling the messy protocol of a riot in touchy regional politics. Indeed, as the vested interests outside the prison exploit the uprising to their own gain, our erstwhile innocent hero’s worries and intentions gradually fall more into line with the criminals than the law.
That said, these moments are little more than emotional froth, whipped up by director Daniel Monzón’s pursuit of an effective thriller, with unflinching violence, copious twists, and meticulous destruction of the prison set, which by the end resembles a desolate war zone.
Cell 211 subverts the expectation of its haunting prologue, where an anonymous prisoner opens his veins with a blade moulded from flame-sharpened cigarette filters. Reminiscent of last year’s other Euro-prison film, A Prophet, it in retrospect shows Cell 211 to be less concerned with poetry, than it is with punch.
Who can argue with an armful of Goyas?
Polished and brutal in equal measure, with one beguiling performance and some novel national detail, but unsubtle and contrived nonetheless.
The twisty plot soon gets knotted, but in the process shows a deeply broken system born of violence and corruption.