Locked in – Cell 211 review

Cell 211 – Starring Alberto Ammann and Luis Tosar. Directed by Daniel Monzon. Rated MA. By Simon Miraudo.

Cell 211 plays the Perth International Arts Festival from March 14th to March 27th. Click here for more details. It also arrives on DVD May 18th.

People love prison movies. Consider The Shawshank Redemption, the number one film on IMDB’s user selected Top 250 films of all time. There are also award winners like A Prophet, Hunger, In The Name of the Father, The Hurricane and Midnight Express or audience favourites like Cool Hand Luke, The Green Mile, The Longest Yard and Stir Crazy. And who could forget the 1990 comedy classic, John R. Cherry III’s Ernest Goes To Jail (the second highest grossing film of the Ernest P. Worell series, and thought of by many to be the most haunting, unforgettable instalment of them all)? Although Daniel Monzon’s Cell 211 can’t claim to be as landmark a prison movie as Shawshank, A Prophet or Ernest Goes to Jail, it’s a fine addition to the incarcerated-canon. It’s also a worthy entrant into the “Worst. Day. Ever.” subgenre.

Alberto Ammann stars as Juan Oliver, a sweet-natured and street-smart young man who’s recently scored a job at a maximum security prison. He wants to prove to his soon-to-be-colleagues that he’s committed to the job, so he rocks up a day early to learn the ropes, leaving his pregnant wife at home. Then, enduring some bad luck of biblical proportions, he is accidentally knocked unconscious and the guards haul him into the newly-vacant Cell 211 (hey, that’s the title of the movie!) rather than the infirmary. Then, wouldn’t you believe it, a prison riot breaks out, orchestrated by the bulldog-looking Malamadre (Luis Tosar), and Juan is forced to pretend to be a fellow prisoner, lest he be taken hostage, or worse.

The numerous events required to get Juan Olivier stuck on the wrong side of the prison gates may sound trite – and well, they are – but director Daniel Monzon and his screenwriters (adapting Francisco Perez Gandul’s novel of the same name) move the film along so briskly you barely have time to breathe, let alone poke holes in the plot. And thank goodness for that, because Cell 211 is a fantastically paced and fun prison thriller that doesn’t condescend to repeat the “prison-can-be-a-place-to-find-yourself” theme of so many other movies. It subscribes more to the findings of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment: “Cage even the sanest people up and they will go crazy”. Juan Oliver’s evolution from kindly prison guard to hardened gang leader over the course of one day may seem extreme, but the madness of the environment, the richness of Ammann’s performance and the brutality of the overall scenario is enough to convince any skeptic.

Perhaps people love prison movies because we always like to think about what we’d do if we were locked up; how we’d cope, what we’d do to pass the time etc. As in The Shawshank Redemption, Cell 211 presents us with an innocent man – just like us – caught in the most impossible and unenviable of situations. But, morbid curiosity freaks like me will similarly enjoy thinking of themselves in the same situation, evaluating each and every one of Juan’s decisions, and wondering whether he goes too far.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Cell 211 plays the Perth International Arts Festival from March 14th to March 27th. Click here for more details. It also arrives on DVD May 18th.

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