Zeitgeist Films // 2009 // 111 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // August 24th, 2011
"I'll do my best."
Every once in a while a film will come along completely under the radar to knock your socks off. Cell 211 is such a film.
Turning up to work a day early, Juan (Alberto Ammann), a rookie prison guard, is given a tour of the facility. Within minutes of entering the prison, he is knocked unconscious at the start of a riot. When he finally wakes up, Juan finds himself stranded amongst the violent inmates and is quickly confronted by their leader, the monstrous Malamadre (Luis Tosar).
Juan is forced to rely on his wits to survive, but is put into even greater peril when a political bent to the riot is revealed.
Daniel Monzon's prison-based thriller, Cell 211, is a story about a man surviving on his wits in a hostile environment. It is a simple enough story, but one well told with small intricacies and a bold structure that make it essential viewing.
The film opens with Juan taking a tour of the prison he is to work at as a guard. He finds his co-workers to be an amiable enough lot, and they are quick to impart their wisdom to the younger man. The prisoners, they tell him, are a feral pack, and the key to survival is to always look them in the eye, inferring that any sign of weakness will be pounced upon. Juan is a smart young man and keen to learn, and it is as well that he listens to their words, as he is soon knocked unconscious when a disturbance amongst the inmates breaks out. Assuming they can quell the uproar, the prison guards put Juan in an empty cell to recover, but when the scale of the uprising is made clear the guards are forced to flee, leaving him isolated. When Juan wakes up he is immediately challenged by an aggressive inmate demanding to know who he is. It is here that we learn just how smart, and, more importantly resourceful, Juan is. As the inmate heads of in search of others, Juan assesses the situation astutely. He quickly concocts a story, simple enough to remember but believable also, that will become his cover. He also uses this time to remove his belt, shoelaces, and wallet -- remembering that the prison inmates have these items removed the moment they are incarcerated. At this point, Juan is taken into the depths of the prison where he is introduced to Malamadre, the brutal psychopath who rules the prison through fear. Correctly assuming that Malamadre is masterminding the riot, Juan acknowledges he is also his best means of escape. So, adhering to the old maxim that one should keep their friends close and their enemies even closer, Juan makes himself integral to the direction the riot takes, becoming Malamadre's right-hand man in the process.
The contrast between these two men is immediate and striking, as Malamadre allows his instincts to guide him, while Juan uses his head. It's the relationship these two men develop that acts as the main focus of the film, and is the chief catalyst for the escalating tension, especially as even the slightest slipup would mean curtains for Juan.
The interplay between Juan and Malamadre proves to be an ever changing dynamic. Although Malamadre (superficially at least) benefits from Juan's advice, he is quick to threaten the younger man if he feels he has undermined his authority. As such, Juan must consistently stay one step ahead of Malamadre, by both hiding his real intentions and massaging his ego. In amongst the posturing and violence, Juan and Malamdare share one or two quieter moments where they find time to impart personal information, and find some common ground which suggests the possibility of a very real bond between the two men. Even as Malamadre's suspicions are aroused as to Juan's real identity, this burgeoning friendship proves vital to the direction of his decision-making. Malamadre is just one of the threats Juan must face, and with numerous factions within the prison all looking to benefit from the fallout of the riot -- not to mention those among Malamadre's number who openly distrust him -- it is clear that Juan is playing against a stacked deck.
Daniel Monzon ensures the tension level remains high throughout his picture, thanks to his unbelievably cool direction, which even more seasoned and celebrated filmmakers would do well to match. Not once does Monzon falter, as he delivers scene after scene of nail-biting set pieces. Rescue attempts, be they in the form of a heavily armed SWAT team or a lone negotiator, are as exciting as any Die Hard movie, despite this being a character driven piece. Cell 211 has a real grittiness to it, with Monzon getting the camera right in the middle of the action, ensuring the ensuing chaos is really felt by his audience. Perhaps the real star of the film is Monzon's and Jorge Guerricaechevarria's screenplay. At the film's opening we know nothing of Juan, Malamadre, or any of the characters on the stories periphery. This makes a refreshing change, as rather than overloading the film's opening by giving each character a proper introduction, Monzon is bold enough to allow us to learn all we need to know about these characters through their actions. A series of flashbacks fill us in on Juan and his partner, Elena, only when it becomes relevant to the story. Monzon and Guerricaechevarria show a real knack for developing their characters, and treat them as real people. Even Malamadre and his fellow inmates are blessed with layers that go beyond the badass image they project of themselves. One sequence sees the inmates watching a local news report on the riot, which features footage of family members outside the prison gates. The joy in their faces, as they see wives, girlfriends, mothers, brothers, and children is in stark contrast to the violent acts we have been witness to previously. Does this make us like them any more? Hell, no! Monzon isn't asking us to forgive them their crimes, but again, it is a reminder that there is more to them than we initially see, and that even in the darkest heart, there can still be an ounce of goodness.
While the 5.1 soundtrack is generally excellent, with crisp dialogue, there are occasional moments where the volume dropped noticeably. This isn't a major problem, but still a flaw worth noting. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is rock solid. Black levels are deep, with high detail levels and a sharp picture throughout. Along with the film's theatrical trailer, the DVD also includes "The Making Of Cell 211," which offers a fairly standard look behind the scenes, with cast and crew interviews.
A riveting experience, Cell 211 is a nerve-shredding thriller that leaves its audience breathless. The film's labyrinthine plot takes many an unexpected turn, and provides a fitting conclusion that few will see coming. Make no mistake, Cell 211 is a real punch to the gut. On a purely visceral level, very few recent films come close to what Monzon has crafted here.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated