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.

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