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.

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