I was genuinely surprised by Cell 211 (2009, directed by Daniel Monzón). Toward the end of the movie, I kept wondering: "Are they really going to go there?" I must be conditioned by American movies that don't follow the strength of their convictions, because I didn't think this movie would turn the way that it did, given its various elements. It was kind of thrilling to watch, actually, as not only did it go that way, it did so with a vengeance. It serves as a stark reminder that the rest of the world still has the 'nads to kick the audience in the gut.
Cell 211 is a prison movie, which is a pretty sturdy genre after all these years. It follows two men during a prison uprising: Juan, who is a new guard touring the prison the day before he starts work, and Malamadre, the lifer who leads the uprising. Juan gets caught up in the uprising and since the inmates don't know him, he is able to keep himself alive by impersonating a new prisoner. He's sharp, too, and soon, he's Malamadre's right hand man, all the while searching for a way out of his predicament. The riot has a political dimension for the prison administration and the government at large, too, because three of the hostages the prisoners are holding are Basque separatists whose deaths would precipitate a crisis in the government should it result in a wave of terror attacks. Also caught up in this is mayhem is Juan's pregnant wife who is engulfed by the rioting outside the prison, a riot put down with an iron fist by Utrilla, the head screw. Juan has to walk a thin line between discovery and his duties as a guard, but sometimes, things don't work out the way that you expect them.
At its core, Cell 211 is film noir. At some point near the end of the movie, Juan has to make a choice that has no good outcome, and it sends him into the familiar downward spiral of the noir hero. This is not a film in which the lines of battle are drawn in black and white and the whole situation is a morass of tangled moral choices. The differences between the guards and the inmates are sometimes not so clear. The clear villain of the piece is Utrilla, while Malamadre emerges as a kind of anti-hero. This film is often about bad people behaving better than you expect. Malamadre's methods may be brutal, the film suggests, but they're not more brutal than the guards and he has noble intentions. Juan falls under his spell as the movie progresses and the two men form an uneasy friendship, though one tinged with the threat of death should Juan stray too far from the role he's playing. This pays a lot of attention to character rather than the brutality of the riot (though it doesn't skimp on that, either), and when it maneuvers its characters to the precipice, it isn't shy about pushing them off of it. Everyone loses in this movie, except maybe the system itself, which is shown to be stacked against everyone.
Some of the touches I really liked about this film: a sex scene between Juan and the very pregnant Elena, which is sexy as hell and completely unexpected (you wouldn't see this in an American movie). The graffiti on the walls of the titular Cell 211. The wishy washy political wavering of the Warden, who knows that the prisoners have a legitimate beef. The balance between the left-ish desire to negotiate a peace and the right-ish desire to go in and bust heads. This last bit is important, because it marks the film as socially aware in the way prison movies from the fifties and sixties were socially aware. As I was watching, I couldn't help but think that this would have been a crackerjack project for Robert Aldrich. It's more controlled than Aldrich, though. The filmmakers have set the film in a terrifically photogenic abandoned prison, too, and stocked the background cast with actual convicts.
This was a huge award winner in Spain, and it's easy to see why. This is a movie that's given over to its actors. Luis Tosar pretty much rules the film as Malamadre (whose name, I note, means "Bad Mother"). He's a charismatic presence in spite of the harsh voice the actor has affected for the part. Juan is played by Alberto Ammann, and it's hard to believe that this is his first film. He has the presence of a born movie star. He has a difficult character arc that goes from innocence to experience, and he sells it. Tosar and Ammann pretty much command the screen amid the chaos. It's a good looking film, too, with very deliberate color choices manifesting in the light rather than the decor. Prisons, after all, are gray and drab, so using color expressively is an impressive feat. It's pretty subtle, too. I suspect that the screenplay for the movie was a lot more filthy-mouthed than the subtitles, and I suspect, too, that the movie loses some texture along those lines if you don't speak Spanish (I sort of do, enough to catch a lot of the stray "mother fuckers" that the subtitles leave untranslated). Ultimately, though, there are plenty of prison movies that hit the same notes as this one does. I mean, the friendship between Juan and Malamadre isn't a lot different than the one between Red and Andy in The Shawshank Redemption. What sets this one apart is its instinct for the jugular. When that punch lands near the end of the movie, it lands hard, and as the credits were rolling, I was still staring at the screen with a kind of shock. This is a kind of film I love.