A new prison guard (Alberto Ammann) gets a baptism of fire on his first day, when the inmates riot and take over the prison. Abandoned by his colleagues, he is forced to swap sides and pose as a new prisoner in order to survive, but the situation deteriorates when the escalating violence turns political.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: The opening scene of this exciting and grim prison thriller from Spanish director Daniel Monzon seems calculated to put us on edge; in a dark cell, its battered walls scarred with graffiti, an emaciated prisoner takes his time to slit the veins on one arm. As blood cascades into a filthy sink he carefully slits his other wrist. We don’t know who is or what he might have done. But as a picture of despair they don’t come much stronger.
In a sense Monzon is laying down the law for us; this is a movie where blood is going to flow, and flow often. Here, violence appears random, hopeless and filled with rage, but as the film’s intricate and clever plot unfolds we find that what lies behind a lot of it is a sad and human story.
Fast paced and directed for maximum emotional impact, Cell 211 bundles together a string of subplots; it’s a siege drama, a suspense film and prison flick. Anticipating twists and turns is a dead end here; the action is so full of surprise and shock it’s heartbreaking. Of course the twitchy narrative is an ingenious way to reflect the impossible-to-trust-anyone prison culture the movie presents.
Juan (Alberto Ammann), a new prison guard, turns up to work a day early and ends up in the middle of a prison riot. To survive he pretends to be a new inmate. As the administrators wrestle with the best way to restore order, the movie seems to settle into a conventional suspenser: Is Juan smart enough to keep his cover and stall for time while the SWAT team prepares to invade the walls?
The prisoners are led by the bullish and smart Malamadre ('Bad Mother'), played by the superb Spanish character actor Luis Tosar, and for awhile the movie seems to settle into a traditional almost TV movie kind of plot where the two smart natural leaders – Juan and Malamadre – compete for primacy over the prison gang. Still, Monzon and screenwriter Jorge Guerricaechevarría throw more elements at the set-up; the prison holds Basque terrorists. Their fate is used as a bargaining tool in negotiations with the administrators. Meanwhile, Juan’s pregnant wife Elena (Marta Etura) gets caught up in the violence outside the prison as the inmate families riot.
Perhaps the most interesting twist in the film is the way Juan’s moral character shifts under the weight of violence, incarceration and group-think. Juan, just like everyone else in the prison, begins to act out of self-interest; in this place there’s no such thing as social responsibility. Even Malamadre’s prison 'brotherhood' is just a political tool.
What’s strong and interesting about Monzon’s direction is the way he keeps the film’s many tangents and issues moving and coherent. For some, Cell 211 will seem a little heavy-handed (the movies ultra violence is juxtaposed with flashbacks to Juan and Elena enjoying an afternoon in bed, all shot in honey tones).
Still, this contrast is important since it indicates that in this world Juan is a sentimentalist, and in the film’s harsh ideology this means he is a soul easily corrupted by the pressures of prison.