Film Club: Prisons

In Film Club, Gary and Tom each select three films that share a similar theme – then both choose a top three from those six. This time, we’re going behind bars with prison films!

Felon (2008, Ric Roman Waugh)

Gary says:

Ric Roman Waugh’s Felon is a brutal and gritty depiction of life inside a maximum security prison block, as criminally unfortunate family man Wade Porter, played by Somewhere’s Stephen Dorff, finds himself plucked from his idyllic life and locked up for involuntary manslaughter. It soon becomes clear that Porter will need to adapt to survive in Corcoran State Prison’s Secure Housing Unit; a place packed with terrifying inmates, where gang affiliation and racial identity rule supreme.

Harold Perrineau, perhaps best known as Michael in TV series LOST, provides an excellent performance as Lt. Jackson – the SHU’s ruthless and tyrannical guard with a genuine hatred for his prisoners. The opening third of the film feels slightly disjointed but, once it hits its stride, Felon is a thrilling and complex prison film with a very satisfying ending.

Tom says:

Corrupt prison wardens, race gangs and bare-fisted death-matches, Felon is a white-knuckle ride through the American prison system, and is based on real life events at the infamous Corcoran, California State Prison. Harold Perrineau’s performance as Lieutenant Jackson will have you hurling abuse at your screen as he commits questionable act after questionable act, and the intimidating yet wise cell-mate John Smith, played by Val Kilmer, is also worth a mention.

The main drawback for me, however, is just how unrealistic some of the twists-and-turns feel; lead character Wade Porter, played by Stephen Dorff, seems like the unluckiest man in the world: first he accidentally kills a burglar, then gets forced into being an accessory for murder and then gets shacked up in a cell with a notorious hard-man – after a while, it just begins to feel contrived. However, just on how much tension is built up in this claustrophobic setting, I feel it’s worth a watch.

Down by Law (1986, Jim Jarmusch)

Gary says:

Gravel-tongued singer-songwriter Tom Waits stars as Zack, a laid-back, but troubled, DJ who gets sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, in Jim Jarmusch’s stylish, independent black-and-white film, Down by Law. Sharing Zack’s cell is the perhaps even more laid-back Jack (a pimp who was framed by a former friend), and the hapless Bob (a lovably funny Italian idiot with a penchant for idioms). Once inside and acquainted, the three men hatch a plan to escape their cell and then wade and paddle their way through a bayou in the hopes of finding freedom.

Although not much happens in terms of story, the film’s straightforward narrative provides the opportunity to spend a large amount of time developing the relationship between the three central characters. There are perhaps a few too many long, lingering scenes – particularly inside the prison cell – but the film’s striking originality, and the outstanding performance of Roberto Benigni as Bob, ensure that Down by Law remains a uniquely enjoyable experience.

Tom says:

Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law tells the story of three inmates: a disc-jockey named Zack, played by Tom Waits, a pimp named Jack, played by John Lurie and an Italian tourist named Bob, played by Roberto Benigni, who escape from a Louisiana prison. Those looking for something in the vein of The Great Escape should look elsewhere because Down by Law forsakes any intense action and the details of the escape itself, instead focusing on the relationship between the inmates.

Some may find the long takes and the occasional periods of silence to be tedious, and admittedly the film does drag a little in places, but the chemistry between Zack, Jack and Bob is great to watch. Roberto Benigni’s performance is definitely the best part of this film, as his character Bob adds the much-needed comedy element to this grim setting. If you don’t mind slow-paced, character-driven films, and you can forgive the occasionally iffy acting from Waits and Lurie, then you should definitely consider watching this.

Lock Up (1989, John Flynn)

Gary says:

Lock Up is a thrillingly corny prison film crammed with clichés, starring one-man-army Sylvester Stallone as model prisoner Frank Leone – a convict who is nearing the end of his sentence and living the easy life in the idyllic, low-security paradise of Norwood prison. His past comes back to haunt him when he is unexpectedly woken in the night and transferred to the hellish Gateway prison to serve his remaining time.

Donald Sutherland provides a brilliantly menacing performance as the nefarious Warden Drumgoole, who wants revenge for Leone’s previous escape from his prison. The film’s electrifying finale is undoubtedly the highlight of an otherwise fairly straightforward plot, which mainly revolves around Drumgoole’s attempts to extend Leone’s sentence and make his life miserable.

It’s certainly no Rocky, but Lock Up is still vintage Stallone and has the training montage to prove it. It does occasionally take itself a little more seriously than it perhaps should, with a cheesy soundtrack and some incredibly sentimental flashback sequences, but it provides enough action and excitement to make it worthwhile.

Tom says:

With his prison sentence almost served, Frank Leone (played by Sylvester Stallone) is transferred to a maximum-security facility by Warden Drumgoole (Donald Sutherland), a sadistic and manipulative prison warden whose prison Leone had once escaped from. Drumgoole then spends the majority of the film trying to “break” Leone, to get back at him for the ridicule he suffered due to the escape.

Gateway, the facility Leone was transferred to, is more akin to a concentration camp than a prison, as Leone is subjected to sleep deprivation torture and frequent beatings by the guards. Drumgoole, if not slightly cliché, is detestable from the start; some of the lengths that he goes to in order to get at Leone are truly shocking. Unfortunately these ruthlessly entertaining moments are counteracted by overwhelming sentimentality.

Be it the piano melodies lingering in the background, the many motivational speeches or the brief romantic flashbacks, Lock Up often finds itself crossing the border from sweetness into sickliness and leaves the impression that it is trying too hard to be emotional and inspirational. But underneath the thick layer of cheesiness, there is a somewhat enjoyable, albeit simple plot which will have you cheering for Leone until the end.

Midnight Express (1978, Alan Parker)

Gary says:

Quite loosely based on a true story, Alan Parker’s Midnight Express is an impressively bleak and poignant tale of Billy Hayes; an American man imprisoned in a Turkish jail far from home, driven to the brink of insanity and determined to escape. Brad Davis stars and provides a mesmerising and emotional performance, brilliantly capturing Billy’s hopelessness and desperation caused by his torturous surroundings.

The representation of Hayes’ less than delightful Turkish captors was strongly criticised upon the film’s release as being a massive deviation from true events. However, if observed as being an entirely fictional portrayal, the prison guards are supremely menacing foes. A lack of subtitles for any foreign dialogue also excellently emphasises the sense of alienation that the English speaking prisoners are feeling.

It’s hard to believe Midnight Express is 35 years old; the award-winning and enchanting electro soundtrack is the only real clue of its true age. It’s a beautifully shot film with some very evocative themes, such as homosexuality and torture, which are still incredibly relevant today.

Tom says:

Using Billy Hayes’ life as an outline, Midnight Express tells the story of an American student who, after being caught smuggling hash, is thrown into a grim and merciless Turkish prison. This fictional Billy Hayes was Brad Davis’ only substantial career role, which seems outrageous after such a brilliant performance. Davis shows a great acting range as Hayes’ feelings of alienation and despair slowly eat away at his mind and body.

With only his new acquaintances, Jimmy (Randy Quaid), Erich (Norbert Weisser) and Max (John Hurt) to keep him company, their status as the odd-ones-out provides little hope to the viewer and gives a strong indication that anything could happen. The head guard, Hamidou (Paul L. Smith), is a man of few words yet still abominable, and Turkish inmate and teacher’s pet Rifki (Paolo Bonacelli) infuriates as he runs to Hamidou at any sign of rule-breaking.

Midnight Express is a great portrayal of the effects of both isolation and alienation that has no qualms with sacrificing the viewer’s hope for incredibly tense and sometimes brutal action.

McVicar (1980, Tom Clegg)

Gary says:

Starring The Who frontman Roger Daltrey and produced by the band’s own film company, McVicar is an enjoyable, but flawed, prison biopic that tells the true story of John McVicar – a convicted cockney armed robber, imprisoned in a maximum security wing in the North East city of Durham.

The film’s engaging first half allows for an interesting North vs South dynamic, as the Londoner prisoners attempt to get the better of their Geordie guards. The escape scenes provide some genuine tension when John and his fellow inmates gradually chip away at a shower wall right under the noses of their captors. Although the British setting does bring a certain charm, some of the outdoor scenes have not aged well. Unfortunately, McVicar is also let down by its slow-paced and fairly dull second half.

You might find yourself occasionally squinting at the screen and thinking “who are you?” (I’m really sorry), as the modest cast is hardly a who’s who of Hollywood’s A-List. However, most of the performances are strong enough – with the exception of some painfully awful child acting, which can be overlooked – and Daltrey’s angsty portrayal of the titular anti-hero is particularly, and perhaps surprisingly, impressive.

Tom says:

Although little-known and short-lived, The Who Films Ltd. produced 3 movies between 1979 and 1980. The only one not related to their music was McVicar, the story of real life robber-turned-writer John McVicar, played by The Who front-man Roger Daltrey.

For the most part, the film takes place in a supposed high-security prison, where we are introduced to McVicar’s fellow inmates who, like McVicar, fall into the category of cockney thugs that lack any depth or redeemable qualities. It is much easier to side with the prison guards while watching this film, as they at least have logical reasons for their actions. The inmates, however, find any excuse to terrorise the guards and wreck the prison, which makes me wonder who the director wants us to root for.

Bad characters aside, the first half of the film does contain some decent action, especially concerning the mechanics of their escape attempts, as well as the odd funny line of dialogue, which at least make it entertaining. Unfortunately McVicar‘s tediously-slow-paced second half loses all entertainment value and feels more like a soap opera than a prison film.

Hunger (2008, Steve McQueen)

Gary says:

Hunger is British director Steve McQueen’s debut feature film; a shocking and uncompromising demonstration of his film-making prowess, that provides a startling insight into the true story of the protests of imprisoned IRA activists in HM Prison Maze during the early 80’s.

McQueen’s artistic background is evident throughout – focusing heavily on the visual, with very little dialogue. The attention to detail in every shot is completely exquisite, particularly when meticulously depicting the vile ‘dirty protests’, where prisoners smeared their walls with excrement in a depraved act of defiance.

Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of Bobby Sands, the leader of the prisoners’ hunger strike, is perhaps his finest appearance to date. The Hollywood star gives an outstandingly dedicated performance, pushing his body to the limit to show the devastating effects of extreme hunger, with a jaw-dropping weight loss that is perhaps even more sickening than Christian Bale’s in The Machinist.

The subject matter is disturbing and often difficult to watch, but Hunger is an incredibly satisfying film that will leave you hungry for more.

Tom says:

Hunger is long time fine artist Steve McQueen’s first foray into feature-length directing, and it shows many signs that McQueen is capable of having a fine career in this field. It recalls the 1981 Irish hunger striker in which a group of IRA prisoners began refusing food in an attempt to regain their special status that provided them with more freedom due to their political nature.

The strike is led by Bobby Sands, played masterfully by Michael Fassbender. It is clear that Fassbender pushed himself both mentally and physically to prepare for this role, and proves that he is one of today’s greatest actors.

This film doesn’t talk much – providing itself with room to focus on the shocking and sometimes disturbing situation that the prisoners are in. However, when there is dialogue, McQueen pulls no punches, most notably in the 22-and-a-half-minute long conversation between Sands and Gerry Campbell (played by Liam Cunningham) which is mostly covered in one impressive, unbroken shot.

Although Hunger is McQueen’s first feature-length film, his previous artistic experience makes it seem like he’s been making them forever and I’ll certainly be waiting with bated breath for his future releases.

Got a favourite from the films we watched? The next Film Club category will be: Surreal! Share your suggestions or any thoughts on prison films in the comments.

by Gary Woodcock & Tom Woodcock


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