The Aisle Steat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"CELL 211"

Cell 211

Cell 211 is the winner of six Goya awards, Spain's equivalent to the Oscars. It has a very unsettling premise: Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann) shows up a day early for his new job as a prison guard, determined to make a good impression, only to get caught in the middle of an inmate uprising. When he's injured right before the riot takes place, Juan is taken to the titular cell rather than being transported to the infirmary. The inmates mistake him for one of their own, and Juan plays along, eventually earning the trust of Malamadre (Luis Tosar), the convict who is spearheading the uprising.

The longer the siege goes on, the more intense it gets, with Malamadre holding hostages and making demands. Juan has to think quickly in order to carry on his ruse. He knows that if the inmates find out he's really a guard, they'll murder him quickly. Things come to a head when word of the riot makes the news, and his pregnant wife shows up outside the prison walls. While all this is occurring, the prison administration monitors events from a security camera, trying to figure out how best to get Juan out safely.

Malmadre is a vicious man, destined to spend the rest of his life in jail. For this reason, he genuinely doesn't care about anything. As one supporting character says, when you know you aren't getting out, you'll do whatever you damn well feel like, because it doesn't matter anymore. While I wouldn't want to meet someone like this in real life, he is an undeniably fascinating movie character, and it's no wonder that he's just as central to the story as Juan is. Malamadre has his own logic driving his actions, but more than that, he thinks he is right in his fight for more humane prison conditions. He might even be right despite the wrongness of the way he goes about things.

There is a lot of tension as Juan tries to keep his cover in a potentially deadly situation. It's interesting to watch how he changes the longer he stays in Malamadre's orbit. Surviving means convincing a very bad man that they are alike; that, in turn, means letting go (or pretending to let go) of some of his personal values. For instance, when one of the inmates captures a guard and wants to torture him, Juan has to decide whether to let it happen thus preserving his ruse or try to stop it, in which case he'd likely be tortured as well. Director Daniel Monzon skillfully cranks up the tension to uncomfortable levels.

The story in Cell 211 obviously has a lot of political overtones (the details of which I'm leaving out to avoid spoilers) that may help to explain the acclaim it received in its country of origin. I'm not sure how well those overtones translate; to me, the film played well as a tense thriller but, performances aside, not necessarily as an awards contender. Juan's trajectory feels a little on rails; in order to make the point Cell 211 is going for, it clearly has to proceed in a certain way. Once you figure out what that is, you can kind of guess what will happen before it ultimately does.

Despite that, Cell 211 remains a well-made and engrossing picture, anchored by authentic performances from Ammann and Tosar. It is available on demand via IFC Midnight.

( out of four)

Cell 211 is unrated but contains adult language and graphic violence. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.