Juan (Ammann) is one day away from starting a new job as a prison guard. Eager to make a good first impression, he asks for a tour of the facility the day before. So he is dressed in plainclothes when some falling masonry strikes him the head. The prison guards take him to the vacant Cell 211 to await the prison doctor, but before they can take action a violent and carefully orchestrated prison riot erupts around him. The guards have to run for their lives and have no choice but to leave the unconscious Juan behind. Waking up dazed, bloody and with chaos outside the cell door, Jaun must take quick and immediate action or become a hostage or worse (the prison is home to extremely violent inmates who will take great pleasure in torturing a guard). Juan decides to pretend to be a new inmate and becomes embroiled in a constant and nail biting attempt to stay alive.
Monzón’s film stylistically looks like other recent European films in this vein such as Jacques Audiard’s Un prophète, but it really harks back to the lean muscular American thrillers of directors such as Don Siegel, Robert Aldrich, and Walter Hill. These directors favoured films where character was expressed through action and reaction, rather than exposition. At the beginning of the film the audience knows almost nothing about Juan, except that he is eager to make a good impression in a new job because he has a pregnant wife to support. However we quickly learn a great deal about the character by observing (often through my fingers I have to say) constantly evolving situation throws ever faster and trickier curveballs at Juan, and how his necessary deception forces him to make difficult decisions to stay alive.
As Juan, Argentinean actor Ammann is superb, making his character compelling and his actions believable. The worse things get, the more you will pray for a happy ending. However good as Ammann is, he isn’t the actor audiences are going to be raving about, that would be Luis Tosar as violent inmate Malamadre. Malamadre is the ringleader of the riot, a lifer serving extra time for killing a prison guard, he is a man with no prospect of parole and nothing to lose. Tosar plays him as a truly fearsome character, but one who reveals hidden depths. It is a brilliant performance of bug-eyed intensity and charismatic machismo.
While Cell 211 has universal things to say about the about the hierarchy of prisons, and the morality of the state stripping prisoners of their dignity, it is never a heavy-handed liberal diatribe. Cell 211 never allows its subtext to overpower its compelling story. Above all this film is exciting, there is only enough setup to establish the geography of the prison and then the Monzón ignites the afterburners, and the film goes supersonic. A critical and box office success in Spain, where it won 8 Goya awards (the Spanish BAFTAs), it isn’t a surprise to hear that remake rights have already been snapped up by Hollywood. However the inevitable US version will no doubt come top loaded with film star baggage, and is unlikely to push the story and characters as far as Monzón is willing to.
Prison thrillers are an evergreen genre, and most have the same basic engine driving their plots. A new fish arrives, is taken under the wing of a more experienced inmate who tries to show them enough of the ropes so they can survive. Everything from The Shawshank Redemption to Un prophète uses this basic plot. One of the most impressive things about Cell 211 is that it comes to the party with a whole new bag of tricks. You may have seen every prison film ever, but I guarantee you, you haven’t seen Cell 211… yet.