The Best Prison-Set Movies You've Never Seen

(Welcome to The Best Movies You've Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. This week we go behind bars for a look at great films that take place in jails, prisons, and other places of involuntary incarceration.)

Most of us will never spend time behind bars, incarcerated for a crime we did or didn't commit, and that lack of first-hand experience might be part of what makes movies about prison life so popular. They come in all forms and genres from Stephen King-penned (The Shawshank Redemption, 1994) to horror (Prison, 1987) to comedy (The Longest Yard, 1974) to exploitation (The Big Bird Cage, 1972) to action (Boyka: Undisputed, 2016) to the effortlessly engaging and entertaining (Cool Hand Luke, 1967), but not all of them get the attention they deserve.

So consider this a down and dirty primer on some less popular prison movies that are all well worth your time despite their absence from the general conversation.

Cell 211 (2009)

Juan Oliver is cautiously excited to begin his new job as a prison security guard, but he's not even through orientation yet when a riot breaks out leaving guards dead and the prison in the hands of the prisoners. He's mistaken for a fellow inmate at first, and with no way out Juan is forced to play along while trying to stop further carnage. Things only grow more complicated for him from there.

Director/co-writer Daniel Monzón balances drama and suspense equally though much of the film as characters fall into place amid the chaos and carnage. Juan's struggle to stay alive soon shifts gears in the hopes of getting he and others out with as few casualties as possible, but as the story builds he shifts again in response to information about the authorities he's worked for and alongside. There's plenty of moral judgement to go around with "bad" guys on both sides of the wall, and as new truths emerge it challenges Jaun's own label as hero or villain.

The story turns in the back half of the film offer some genre thrills, but they do lessen the weight of the drama that precedes them. The variety is part of the film's charm, though, as character work and serious commentary on the prison/justice system give way to conspiracy-happy, B-movie plot shenanigans. The whole works by holding and building suspense with occasional bursts of bloody brutality punctuating the drama. See it before the inevitable Hollywood remake.

Cell 211 is currently available on DVD.

Le Trou (1960)

Four cellmates deep into their respective sentences have been planning an escape for some time. Effort has been made, tunnels have been dug, and the right time is quickly approaching. A wrench is thrown into the mix, though, when a new prisoner is added to their cell. With no other option, they're forced to share their plans with him, but when he's promised an imminent release the others grow unsure if he'll keep their secret.

Director/co-writer Jacques Becker channels a bit of Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped (1956) here with some stark black & white photography capturing meditative sequences of time served and the process of escape, but the story is his own. It's one told in quiet moments as much as it is with suspense, and stretches of the film see the men working diligently on their plan and the tunnel. We feel their painstaking work just as we feel the threat that it might all be for naught.

The core thread here is one exploring trust — trust between strangers, trust between a prisoner and the system, and trust between filmmaker and audience — and it all pays off in dramatic and affecting ways. It offers up a dilemma with no ideal answer, and with lives and freedom on the line it soon becomes clear that it's going to be bad news for someone no matter the outcome.

Le Trou is not currently available.

The Platform (2019)

In the future, a man arrives for a six-month sentence in a towering prison structure and discovers life inside is no guarantee. There are two prisoners per floor, and each day a slab with elaborately prepared meals begins its descent from the top moving through a large hole in the center of each floor. Those at the top eat well. Those below may not eat at all. And did I mention you're moved to a randomly assigned floor every thirty days?

This Spanish slice of dystopian order and misery takes a familiar path for futuristic sci-fi in its existence as an allegorical tale about today's world. The prison's structure, and what happens with the food, is a metaphor for real-world classes, the attitudes of people towards those less fortunate, and the ridiculous concept of "trickle down economics." Our hero struggles to convince those above and below that a coordinated effort by all would mean that every inmate would eat well, but his efforts fall on entitled, resentment-filled ears.

As simple as the metaphor is, the effect is immensely powerful. Sharp production design — fans of Cube (1997) will enjoy the sci-fi perfection — and strong performances go a long way, and there's an intensity that powers the film forward. Suspense, action, and dark comedy all come into play as other characters enter the fray, and things only get more ferocious and terrifying the lower the film takes us. It's a cynical yet honest take on humanity, but there's a glimmer of hope here for those who need it. And yes, it is the film's only lie.

The Platform is not currently available.

Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991)

It's 2001 A.D., the future, and prisons have become franchised businesses. One corrupt hell hole sees the arrival of a musclebound young man named Ricky, and it's not long before he decides his new home is in need of cleaning up.

If you've seen any of the movies on this list it's most likely this one, but I couldn't resist including it as its wonders should be glimpsed by every man, woman, and child on the planet. Ricky's efforts tot fight back see him punching holes through people's abdomens, knocking eyes out of sockets, tying off exposed veins with his teeth, and more, and the bad guys are equally graphic (and silly) in the messes they make. Heads are squashed, faces are sliced off, and worse, but while it's bloody as hell it's captured with a twist of cheekiness when it comes to the f/x work.

Lost sometimes in the giddiness over the bloody carnage and comedy is the realization that it's also just a fun action movie. It takes a story familiar to fans of more "serious" action fare and ramps it all up with entertaining fight scenes, exaggerated brawls, and Ricky squaring off against the Incredible Hulk. Why? How? No clue, but it is fun stuff I tell ya.

Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky is currently available to stream and on Blu-ray/DVD.

Short Eyes (1977)

Clark Davis is remanded to prison while awaiting trial, and like everyone else inside he's a man guilty of crimes. His are among the worst, though, and when the other inmates discover what he's done a countdown clock begins ticking over his head. Will he be released before they kill him? And do we even want him to?

Prison is hell, but for some people the suffering is especially deserved. Clark (Bruce Davison) is charged with molesting a little girl — child rapists are called "short eyes" and considered the lowest of the low in prison — and that discovery leaves him targeted for abuse by prisoners and guards alike. Only one man continues to treat him as a human being, and that tenuous relationship is tested in dramatic ways. Davison's performance here is a brave one, and he does compelling work as someone who struggles to earn a sympathy he might not deserve. It's a haunting turn in a horrifying place.

Robert M. Young's film is an adaptation of Miguel Pinero's stage play, and while Clark's narrative is the through line here the bigger story is the place and the people. Time is spent with the other prisoners offering glimpses into their interactions, race relations, brutality, and acts of kindness. It's a harrowing watch as the film immerses viewers into this setting — one large area on a prison floor with surrounding cells — and reveals a place where violence can flare up at any moment. Juan, the one inmate struggling to show Clark compassion, represents a morality lacking in the others, and his efforts leave him equally in danger. It's a dramatically suspenseful experience and a constant reminder that you do not want to end up there.

Short Eyes is currently available on Blu-ray/DVD.

Starred Up (2013)

Eric is an angry and violent young man. It only worsens when he's sent to prison, and as the violent encounters increase he comes face to face with an inmate hoping to warn him off this doomed path. The fact that the inmate is hi father may or may not be ideal.

David Mackenzie's best film remains 2011's Perfect Sense, but this starkly affecting drama is also a winner. It's extremely brutal at times as the film never shies away from the harsh realities of prison life, but hope and camaraderie are also present — in understandably lower degrees. The audience wants his rehabilitation just as those invested within the film do, and the journey raises questions about society's attitudes towards those who've served time.

A big reason the film works, possibly the bigest reason, is Jack O'Connell's lead performance. He's brilliant in the role and shifts effortlessly between aggressive punk and lost young man, and while you can't condone his actions it's possible to understand them in the context of his life. Redemption is far from a certainty, and the film makes it an emotional journey towards that unlikeliest of outcomes.

Starred Up is currently available to stream and on DVD.

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