From Spain comes this violent, vicious and highly suspenseful prison thriller directed by Daniel Monzón. Cell 211 revolves around Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann), a fresh-faced new prison guard who gets the unfortunate idea of showing up at work one day early so he can make a good impression and take a tour of the maximum security penitentiary he has been assigned at.
The most terrifying situation occurs when he is inadvertently left behind in a cell as a riot breaks out. Realizing that no one inside knows he is a guard, the quick-thinking Juan has no choice but to pass himself as a newly convicted murderer. He soon manages to convince the ruthless leader of the inmates, Malamadre (Luis Tosar), a bald, intimidating beast of a man who instigated the riot to improve the conditions inside the prison. But as the situation escalates, will Juan be able to get out of this nightmare not only alive but with his hands clean?
Initially, Cell 211 feels like a conventional prison thriller. The resourceful Juan does his best to survive his ordeal, quickly deciding that he must befriend and gain the respect of the frightening Malamadre if he is to ever see his pregnant wife ever again. Threading a very thin line, Juan progressively gains his trust and the two form a strikingly unlikely relationship based on mutual understanding, respect and admiration. This bond becomes the heart of this story, a bromance of sort thanks to excellent performances from the leads.
Ammamm is compelling and always sympathetic as the stoic lead despite having to face increasingly unethical situations. However, it’s Tosar who is the revelation, giving an intensely physical performance that shouldn’t go unseen. Malamadre is so much more than he initially appears, and Tosar makes him a multidimensional, nuanced man who is simultaneously scary, violent, intelligent, and oddly empathetic.
As the movie descends deeper into its nightmare, the prisoners use three Basque terrorists as hostages in their negotiations with the government while the authorities react badly to crowds amassing outside the prison. A shocking twist involving Juan’s wife comes about two-third of the way and drives Juan to respond to his most primal urge. It adds a surprising amount of moral complexity to all the characters involved.
At times, Monzón relies a bit too heavily on contrivance and certain scenes feel overly melodramatic. However, the director is wise enough to keep proceedings moving along swiftly and quite unpredictably. Because the movie is mostly shot with handheld cameras, Cell 211 feels extremely realistic, almost documentary-like, amping up the tension at key moments. You should be warned that a handful of scenes show some graphic violence, including the opening sequence which shows an inmate cutting his wrists to kill himself.
Winner of eight Goyas (the equivalent of the Spanish Oscars), Cell 211 is a surprisingly taut and gripping prison thriller. It will be interesting to see what Paul Haggis will be able to do with the Hollywood remake. Sadly, I don’t expect anything nearly as nuanced.
Notes: 113 min