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Cell 211

Film Five Stars
I’m a huge thriller fan and I do believe that European cinema leads the way in thrillers these days. When I was first hooked on the genre I was getting caught up with films like The Parallax View and The Star Chamber, some great American thrillers, but as my cinematic tastes grew so I discovered European cinema and their mastery of the genre, something that they haven’t lost a hold of, in fact they grip it tighter than ever.

That’s very true of Cell 211, a film that delivers a thriller filled with tension, strong characters all thrown together in the middle of a prison riot where the main character just happens to be a prison guard, the wrong man in the wrong place caught up in events out with his control, sounds rather classic, but there are some great twists to this thriller to make it rather different from what you might expect.

Plot.pngIt’s the day before Juan Oliver is due to start his new job as a prison guard and he’s asked to be taken on a tour of the facilities and learn the ropes before he actually begins for real. On his tour he’s shown the various low security wings, the high security, and the sections for the incredibly dangerous inmates, people who continually cause trouble and are segregated from the rest of the prison populous.

While being shown an empty section of the prison a piece of masonry falls from the ceiling and hits Juan on the head, he’s not seriously injured but he’s hurt, he’s bleeding, and he’s unconscious. The guards take him into Cell 211 and lie him down, and just as they do there’s noise and commotion from another wing, a prison riot is beginning and the guards are called to help.

As they realise that they’re losing the wing they retreat and only one guard returns to try and get Juan out of there, but it’s too late, so he closes him in and runs.

When Juan wakes up he begins to realise the difficulty of his situation. He’s a prison guard who is caught in the middle of a prison riot, and he really does mean right in the middle as the high security dangerous prisoners have taken the wing he’s in and they’re just about to discover him.

Thinking quickly Juan tries to pass himself off as an inmate and bide his time among the prisoners, however as soon as they find him the prisoners are suspicious and he’s taken to the ringleader, Malamadre.

From here on he has to make some incredibly difficult decisions to survive and to make them believe him, decisions that are changing him, and every time there seems to be a way out, events take a turn for the worse and things are set to change forever.

The film is adapted from a novel by Francisco Pérez Gandul by Jorge Guerricaechevarría and Daniel Monzón who also directs, and if the rumours are true and the IMDB entry correct, it looks like it’s already heading for a remake, and no wonder.

TheFilm.pngThe story starts off quickly, taking us right into the prison and showing us some of the areas where the rest of the film will take place. It’s not long before the action has begun and Juan is in Cell 211 awaiting his rude awakening.

The pace is strong and drives a constant beat to events, it’s not all action though, there’s plenty of character development and a few extra threads to the story to keep us engaged, and in fact any thoughts of action sequences of storming the prisoners are put to the side to build the story.

There are some scenes in the film where we leap back in time to the morning of the event, before Juan has left his house and his life behind to visit the prison, before we’ve all arrived in this terrible world. We journey back to the man he was, someone that drifts further and further away from the character we see as the film continues. We also turn to other events happening outside the prison occasionally, and while it might feel like we’re breaking the confines of the story, it works perfectly well when they’re required fitting well with the story and adding an extra depth to the story.

It’s interesting to see how the relationships grow, built through lies and the events outside, and how others dissolve. The dynamics of the main characters draw you into the story, particularly that of the relationship between Malamadre and Juan. You never are sure what the truth is about them until much later on, and when you do understand their relationship, once again outside events turn everything round.

I did enjoy watching how they developed, how Juan was cornered and the snap decisions he made, and how events were often so out of his control he just had to go with them and do what he had to in order to survive, both of the main characters changing through the outside pressures.

The tension is kept high through the continual distrust amongst the key characters inside the prison and also from the events that are happening outside, and they do give cause for a few surprises. There are a couple of turns to the story that are rather unexpected, and I didn’t really know where the story was going to go from one sequence to the next. I loved that fact about the film and this is where Cell 211 gained a lot of its strength.

Another strong area of the film was the way that you got behind the lead character so easily, he was portrayed well by Alberto Ammann and had me convinced by his performance. The moments where he’s inwardly in a state of panic, or where the big turns in the story take place I was sold on his performance. However, the best performance in the film does go to Luis Tosar who plays Malamadre.

At the beginning of the film his character seems pretty one dimensional, he’s the psychotic in charge of the prisoners, even the hardest of them, but as the film goes on we start to see some other aspects to his character and to the story behind the riot. There’s a lot more going on than we first think, and it’s not revealed in one big scene, it’s revealed slowly and the characters built solidly around it.

It’s rather surprising to see and it’s really well done, it’s not long before our sympathies are lying with the guards as much as the prisoners. The script does a great job of making us see both sides of the story and not letting us away with a one sided viewpoint. Come the end of the film you’ll be surprised where your loyalties and understandings might lie.

There are a few sequences where the story is stretched a little too far, but I found I could easily forgive these for what the rest of the film delivers through the characters, their relationships and the story.

The ending delivered some surprises as the rest of the film had, as well as giving us an interesting viewpoint of the end of the prison riot. It also leaves us with plenty ambiguity and doesn’t try and round everything off nicely explaining who was right and wrong, in fact the good guys don’t always win, and we don’t even know who the good guys are any more.

Overall.pngI really enjoyed Cell 211, it’s a very strong thriller that has great scripting and is excellently performed by the two main leads. The thriller doesn’t let up and does deliver some strong moments where the story takes an unusual direction and left me with the feeling of never really knowing where events were going to go, and that’s what a thriller should do.

It has a great set-up that is executed well, and the slow building of the main characters, their motivations and allegiances, and the way the story peels away the layers of the events is great to watch and keeps you on the edge of your seat uncertain as to what is going to happen to the characters until the final moments. Not only that but there are a couple of shocking moments that add plenty to the thriller.

A strong thriller that will undoubtedly be remade, but in doing so it will undoubtedly lose a lot from the original which relies much more on character, performance and story than most prison thrillers.

Official Spanish Site
Filmstalker Glasgow Film Festival 2011 page
UK IMDB Film Details
Buy or rent Cell 211 from LOVEFiLM
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Movable Type 3.34