Judge Daryl Loomis wishes every movie featured Freddy Fender.
Jesus help me, 'cause man won't.
When the Puerto Rican-born, New York-raised poet Miguel Piñero was in Sing Sing serving time for armed robbery, he was part of a writing workshop and produced a play he called Short Eyes. When a New York Times reviewer happened to attend the performance, he raved about it, creating a buzz that allowed Piñero, upon his release, to mount a full production of the play, which resulted in six Tony nominations and catapulted him to literary fame. A few years later, a film adaptation of the movie was released that I never knew existed until receiving this Blu-ray for review, but I sure am glad I know about it now.
Facts of the Case
Life is rough in "The Tombs," a New York City prison, but it's business as usual until Clark Davis (Bruce Davison, X-Men) shows up to serve his time. He's a "short eyes," prison slang for a child rapist, and not particularly popular amongst his fellow inmates or the guards, who let the prisoner do basically anything they want to him.
So, that's not a plot, and that's what makes Short Eyes one of the more resonant prison movies that I've seen. It's that total lack of a story feels incredibly realistic; these are men who have spent years in the same routine, where experiences come and go and everything returns to the same monotony. There's no riot in the works, no big escape to deal with, just life in a prison.
When Davis shows up about twenty minutes into the movie, it seems like this might change, that the prisoners' collective hatred of his crimes will turn the movie into a big plot to kill him. But even though he's the central character from that point on and director Robert Young (Alambrista!) makes motions toward it throughout the movie, but the sense that this is an authentic slice of prison life never leaves the picture.
Short Eyes easily could have been played as exploitation and, given the low-budget climate at the time, the writer is lucky it didn't, but the movie never feels lurid. There are hints of violence, both physical and sexual, as well as the requisite black market stuff, but just as much time is spent exploring the racial issues of the prison block, the sexual politics between the prisoners, and how they interact with the guards.
As is always the case in prison movies, let alone one adapted from a play, it's the performances that are most important to the success of Short Eyes and the cast mostly excels. Bruce Davison is fantastic as Davis, who is at once a fish out of water in the prison system, but also a complete monster. Even if he didn't commit the crime he's accused of, which is in doubt, he admits to many more in a scene that must have put Davison through the ringer. The mostly amateur, and some convict, cast really sells it beyond the lead, though, and there are a few treats for viewers then and now.
For modern audiences, we have the first ever film role for Luis Guzmán (Boogie Nights) and a tiny but choice role for Mark Margolis (Black Swan). For the older types out there, as well as fans of '70s music, Short Eyes features cameos from the great Curtis Mayfield, who also wrote a fantastic score for the movie, and none other than legendary Tejano/country singer Freddy Fender, who are in the same scene singing songs for their respective racial groups. It's definitely weird to see them all suddenly singing in this very bleak movie, but as a fan of both musicians, I found it kind of funny and oddly appropriate, though your mileage may vary.
It works for me, though, because while I use the word "appropriate" several times here to describe the movie, Piñero's dialog reflects his poetic nature more than it does the gritty realism of other prison movies. Some of its stilted feel no doubt comes from the lack of cast experience, but a lot of it is because the writer was trying to make a point and has a distinctive style. Maybe it isn't the most realistic part of Short Eyes, but it's consistent throughout and just becomes the voice of this surprising and fantastic film.
Short Eyes arrives on Blu-ray from Scorpion Releasing in a typically strong release. I have no idea what the movie looked like before, but this is a super cheap production that looks great in high-definition. The detail is excellent and the colors, while drab and prison-y, look perfectly accurate. The sound is strong, as well, though maybe not as good as the image. It's a single channel Master Audio track that features clear and crisp dialog, but there isn't a whole lot very special about it.
Extras start with a solid audio commentary featuring director Young and joined by Leon Ichaso, who directed Piñero, the poet's biopic, for a lively chat about the writer and the film. It's not as active as I'd like sometimes, but it's an overall very informative talk about the film. New interviews with Davison and Young are also good, and though the one with Davison has only a brief time with the movie at hand, it's a good retrospective of the actor's career. Young's interview covers a lot of the same ground as the commentary, but that's okay.
Not as cruel or as tough to watch as some prison movies out there, Short Eyes nonetheless feels more authentic than any of them. The often lyrical style of the language might not always sound exactly like prison speak, but that's what you get when the writer's a poet. Plus, seriously, Curtis Mayfield and Freddy Fender in the same movie…how do you go wrong with that?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Scorpion Releasing
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