Deservedly joining the ranks of other such fascinating penal system dramas as; Hunger, A Prophet and The Escapist, (which also chose to use the judicial incarceration of criminals as the basis of their powerful character studies), Daniel Monzon’s eight time Goya winner Cell 211 is a fraught and exhilarating prison thriller which stars Alberto Ammann and Luis Tosar.
Cell 211 tells the story of two very different men thrust into an unconventional union during a fierce prison riot. Juan (Ammann) is a newly recruited prison guard who admirably comes into work a day early to get a head start on his upcoming duties. His pregnant wife believes he’s being too diligent, yet so desperate to impress is Juan that he ignores her and heads to the maximum security prison that’ll soon become his workplace. During his induction a skirmish breaks out, resulting in Juan becoming injured and left in an empty cell by his future co-workers so that they can selfishly flee for safety. A full blown riot follows, organised by renowned inmate Malamadre (Tosar), a man of intimidating physical strength whose known history as a psychopathic killer has made him the natural leader of this group of dangerous reprobates. Once he regains consciousness Juan quickly realises that if he’s to survive he must endeavour to appear to be one of these felons, resulting in a tense and absorbing series of events which soon escalate past the point of no return –creating a fascinating game of false identities and survival against a suffocating atmosphere of fear and anxiety
Monzon has successfully created a pulse racing, angry piece of genre cinema, complete with a frantic pace and the right balance of twists and turns to keep its audience engrossed throughout. Despite its shallow and misguided attempt to add a dark political edge to the proceedings (which feels like it’s done out of necessity rather than an intended pieces of satire), the intoxicating degree of black humour and adrenaline fuelled action keeps things’ captivating – from the moment the first punch is pulled, to its gun slinging finale, Cell 211 is anything but boring.
Cell 211’s prison setting feels both claustrophobic and gruesome, yet remains incredibly intriguing, like a secretive world we can’t pull our eyes away from. Creating a superb microcosm of a society built on raw immoral human behaviour, Cell 211 presents a horrifying insight into the flexibility of our self imposed ethics, and the devastating potential of mankind. This is only amplified by Monzon’s decision to compromise the film’s hero, pushing Juan to perform the most heinous of actions and in turn adding gravitas to the film’s sense of unease – slowly leaving us (like most of these inmates), unsure of whom we can trust.
There are some narrative flaws which prevent Cell 211 from becoming the necessary pieces of social drama many have claimed it to be. On reflection the film’s numerous incomprehensible scenes (many of which defy the laws of logic), grate slightly, whilst the film’s blossoming relationship between Malamadre and Juan is completely implausible, yet thanks to some assured direction Monzon prevents the film from becoming completely derailed into the ridiculous. Cell 211 feels like a film constantly about to boil over into the absurd; however, Monzon never gives the audience time to contemplate the feasibility of the onscreen action thanks to some stylish camera work and an over reliance on sharp, frantic cuts.
Cell 211 is a gripping and wholeheartedly enjoyable thriller which never lets its electrifying pace drop for a second. Stuffed fuller than a plump Christmas Turkey with tension and excitement Monzon’s testosterone fuelled prison drama is a perfect piece of high octane, escapist viewing that whilst not the socially important drama it intends to be, makes for a riveting piece of entertainment.