Saturday, December 15, 2012

Top 10 Movies Set in Prison

Fear is a funny thing. If forced to recall a movie about ghosts, demonic possession, alien beings (or the like) that legitimately scared the shit out of me, I’d be hard pressed to think of many, if any. Set a movie in a realistic prison filled with realistic characters, and considered me scared straight.

Whether it’s the cold harshness of solitary confinement, the sadistic abuse from guards, or the survival of the fittest among prisoners, few things rock me more than a movie depicting the brutal accuracy of prison. Below are the 10 best films I’ve seen that take place within the unsympathetic confinement of penitentiary walls.

A few notes: I didn’t take concentration camps and other prisoner of war camps into consideration. Perhaps a list for another day. Also, I’m only featuring films that predominately take place inside the hoosegow. As accurate and terrifying as the prison sequences in American History X are, for example, it isn’t a film about prison.

Honorable Mention: Oz (1997-2003)
The best depiction of prison I have ever seen is displayed in HBO’s groundbreaking series, Oz. The only reason I’m not including it below is simply because it had the luxury of establishing and instilling its fear for 56 hours, while films generally only have two. Regardless, I can’t think of a more telling visual program (film, TV, or otherwise) that depicts prison for what it is. For better or worse, Oz showed the true horror.

10. Slam (1998)
Ray Joshua is a good guy trying to fit in in a bad world. An aspiring rapper (with a penchant for penning remarkable poetry) Ray ends up in a Washington, D.C. prison for his part in a drug deal gone wrong. In all honestly, Slam is far from perfect. What it is equipped with, however, are a series of fantastic scenes that bring the old, familiar maxim, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” to life. Take, for example, a moment in which Ray (played by real life slam poet Saul Williams) is threatened in the prison yard. Instead of fighting back physically, he unleashes several angry and articulate verses of slam poetry to anyone within earshot.

As the stanzas grow more powerful, the silent crowd around Ray grows more interested. An eerily commanding moment.

9. Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
Don Siegel’s slow-paced but wholly entertaining thriller tells the story of Frank Morris, a real life criminal who had a knack for escaping from penitentiaries. Shipped off to Alcatraz, Morris (a perfect Clint Eastwood) is immediately told that the island prison is inescapable. Even if you make it out of the walls, you’ll never survive the harsh bay waters back to shore. A notion Frank and a few of his cohorts spend the duration of the film attempting to prove wrong.

8. The Hurricane (1999)
By the time Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was imprisoned for a triple murder he didn’t commit, he had spent his life in prison as much as out. Norman Jewison’s continuously overlooked film expertly chronicles not only the evolution of a prisoner over time, but the evolution of a life lived inside-and-out of the walls.

The first time Carter is locked up, he decides to turn his body into a weapon. He doesn’t engage with other prisoners, he doesn’t work in the shops or eat the food, instead, he rolls his mattress up, pushes it in the corner of his cell, and beats on it again and again and again. By the time he’s released, he’s ready to attain the middleweight championship.

That’s about as empowering and hopeful a prison sequence as I’ve seen on film, which makes Carter’s return to the cage that much more heartbreaking. After being convicted for the triple murder, Carter immediately refuses to participate in  the prison’s practices, including wearing their clothes. As a result, he’s thrown into solitary confinement for days, weeks, months, who knows.

Malcolm X contains what will always be my favorite Denzel Washington performance, but his extended scene in the hole in this film is the single best sequence of his career. It never fails to shake me.

7. In the Name of the Father (1993)
As real life fuck up turned activist Gerry Conlon, Daniel Day-Lewis plays the arc of a scared kid wrongly imprisoned for a horrendous crime, to faultless results.

After a pup bombing kills five innocent people, Gerry and his best friends are immediately caught, interrogated (read: tortured) and convicted by British authorities for committing an act of terrorism. Gerry was a petty thief with a shabby alibi, and pinning the murders on him proves to be an easy feat. While inside, Gerry’s initial bewilderment slowly turns to drug-fueled acceptance. When his father is sent to the same prison for apparently helping plan the bombing, Gerry becomes a bitter aggressor, taking his life’s troubles out on his helpless old man. And finally, when the man actually responsible for the bombing is placed within the same walls as Gerry and his father, we watch the drug-addicted scapegoat turn into a relentless activist.

In the Name of the Father will rock you, and its ending will floor you. A perfect film.

6. Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Few movies nail the internal isolation of prison better than Cool Hand Luke. Although it is the only film on this list that doesn’t take place within the actual confines of a prison, per se, Paul Newman’s portrayal of Lucas Jackson is one extended, rather ingenious card trick. It’s as if everything he does is done to escape. Whether it’s his refusal to go down in a fight, insistence on finishing a day’s work within a few minutes, or winning everyone’s money by eating an absurd amount of eggs, Luke’s sole aim is to be gone.

Gone from his mind, gone from the labor camp, just… gone. Luke, as we’re told, is a man who would not conform, and my God if that isn’t thrilling to watch on screen.

5. Midnight Express (1978)
After attempting to smuggle two kilograms of hashish out of Turkey (…oops), American college student Billy Hayes is quickly informed of the harsh realities of the Turkish judicial system. Thrown in for four years, Billy’s prison stay offers a gamut of penal-related hardships. For the hellish duration of Midnight Express, director Alan Parker and screenwriter Oliver Stone (who justly won an Oscar for his work here), depict an unforgiving environment in which human decency is all but lost.

Subjected to constant beatings, grand schemes of deceit, would-be rapes, and much more, Midnight Express is a devastating a look at the prison system (foreign, domestic, or otherwise) doing exactly the opposite of what it is supposed to. This Turkish penitentiary isn’t aiming to reform, but rather destroy. Escape or die, young Billy.

4. Le Trou (1960)
Part of the fun in making a list is the initial assembly of films you deem appropriate to rank. In doing my research for this post, there was one film I had never seen that appeared to inarguably be one of the best prison movies ever made. That film was Jacques Becker’s prison escape drama Le Trou (or The Hole), and about 15 minutes into my first viewing, it was clear as to why this masterful work of art ranked so high.

The film chronicles the tediously planned (and true) escape scheme by four long-sentence prisoners who aim to bust out of France’s La Santé Prison. But when the men attain a new cell mate (yeah, they run ‘em five to a cell in La Santé… rough shit), they must either kill the plan, or run the risk of bringing the new guy in.

Part of what makes Le Trou so real was Becker’s dedication to authenticity. According to IMDb, he recreated La Santé down to the tiniest detail (using three of the men involved in the real life escape plan as consultants), and even hired one of the original would-be escapees to star in the film. That’s realism right there, and damn if it doesn’t pay off.

3. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Including The Shawshank Redemption on a list of the best prison films should come as no surprise, as it is simply just that: a frank, startling, and moving depiction of life within the concrete walls.

I think my favorite aspect of this film is its shifting tone. It has these gloriously hopeful set pieces (Mozart playing over the prison yard, beers on the roof, and so on), but right when things verge on getting sentimental, director Frank Darabont reminds us that prison is no fairy tale world. Inmates are beaten to death for crying, the characters we love are shot, raped, and exploited because, well, this is what it is. The Shawshank Redemption represents one of the finest American depictions of prison life ever caught on film. That’s goddamn right.

2. Hunger (2008)
Fans of this blog are well aware that my admiration for filmmaker Steve McQueen is virtually endless. His second film, last year’s Shame, is one of the finest pictures I have ever seen. Period. I’ve talked about that movie at length, but please don’t let that act as a slight toward his first feature, Hunger, which is the most gut-wrenching prison drama I have ever witnessed.

Using sparse dialogue and consistently stark imagery (if you ever thought human feces couldn’t look hauntingly intriguing, well, then, think again), Hunger never shies away from showing you things you’ll never forget. Taking place during the IRA wash and hunger strikes that occurred in Northern Ireland’s famed Maze Prison in the early ‘80s, Hunger is a film hell-bent on letting images do the talking. And goddamn if they don’t speak volumes. Whether the inmates are being beaten, bathed, or shaved against their will, there’s certainly nothing easy about this film, yet its execution makes it nothing less than unmissable. Really, it’s quite a miracle of a movie.

(The only reason this film doesn’t occupy the top spot on this list is simply because it only chronicles one side of the fight. You aren’t going to find a movie in which the prisoner/guard dynamic is depicted with harsher verve, but in terms of the all-encompassing prison struggle, I think there is one film that ever so slightly tops Hunger.)

1. A Prophet (2009)
A Prophet has it all. The common practices (as soon as you arrive, become the bitch, or become the aggressor), the hurried acceptance (a gang receives you, so you do whatever they say, including committing murder), the danger (never knowing who to trust or when to trust them), the divide (you could be with them, or you could be with them), and on and on. There’s danger lurking in every frame of Jacques Audiard’s masterful prison thriller. We trust in the fact that we’re supposed to believe in protagonist Malik (Tahar Rahim), but as the film evolves, we’re not entirely sure if this is a man we want to believe in.

Malik enters prison young and dumb, and, long before the film’s end, is equipped with enough street smarts to essentially run the show. Solely from a film perspective, A Prophet is nothing short of a godsend. It portrays a world we’ve all seen many times over, but (most likely) haven’t experienced firsthand. The film is exceptionally acted, expertly put together, and just all together remarkable.

Now, if judging it strictly on the basis of how it depicts prison life (or prison warfare, as it were), then I simply cannot think of anything better. I’ve never been to prison, but I suspect that A Prophet is precisely what it’s like. You can trust those in your corner, until, you know, you can’t. In short, A Prophet demonstrates what I suspect all inmates know: the only person you can trust is yourself. Never have I seen that notion executed as convincingly as it is here.


  1. "Whooscow?" Is that really how it's spelled? Yup. I'm the kind of nerd who fixates on those things.

    It's been easily 15 years since I saw In The Name of the Father, and I've forgotten a lot of details, but my feeling for that movie has stuck with me all that time. That's how much I loved that film. I've tried to talk many people into watching it, over the years, so we could discuss it, with zero success.

    Hunger is magnificent too. I am also a fan of The Shawshank Redemption. I haven't seen the others.

    Great post!

    1. I saw that spelling on a flyer the other day and forgot how much I love that word. But I just referenced Spike Lee's 25th Hour, and they spell it hoosegow... is if it's good enough for Spike, then it's gotta be good enough for me!

      In the Name of the Father is remarkable. So glad to hear you're a fan of that one. Definitely my second favorite DDL performance behind There Will Be Blood. And I agree, more people need to see it. So so good.

      You've never seen Cool Hand Luke?! Highly recommend that one. One of my all time faves right there.

      Glad you liked the list, thanks for reading!

  2. A Prophet and Hunger are my top 2 prison films. It goes back and forth. Those are what I think are the best.

    3. Cool Hand Luke
    4. The Shawshank Redemption
    5. Midnight Express

    Here's a honorable mention: Blood In, Blood Out by Taylor Hackford starring Benjamin Bratt. It's sort of a prison film as part of it does take place in a prison where it's about a trio of Chicano relatives (one of which is a mixture of white and Mexican) where one of them goes to prison where he ends up becoming the leader of a Chicano prison gang. It features an early appearance from Billy Bob Thornton as a white Supremist gang leader.

    1. Whoa, what strong similarities we have here. That's awesome man.

      I need to find Blood In, Blood Out right away, sounds great. Bratt... I always want to like him, but I feel like he often takes such shitty roles. Loved him in Traffic, Trucker and La Mission... hopefully I dig his work in his. Thanks for the reco.

  3. Gah 2 out of 10. But Shawshank is one of my favourite films ever, so it's alright. Great post and yaay new additions to me "to watch" list :)

    1. Thanks! What's the other one you've seen, Hunger? Either way, two great flicks there. DEFINITELY check out Cool Hand Luke when you can. It's so iconic.

  4. Great list, love films set in prison. Another honorable mention: Bresson's A Man Escaped (1956).

    Then there's The Green Mile, but that's a bit iffy, it's in the IMDB top 250, but I don't think quite as good as Shawshank.

    Le Trou (1960) I will add to my watch list, thanks for this.

    1. The Green Mile is... eh, it just doesn't really work for me. I mentioned this in another recent list of mine, about directors whose best films were their first, which I think is true for Darabont. The Green Mile has a huge heart, no doubt, but it's a tad too sentimental for me to love it.

      A Man Escaped... I'm all over it. Thanks!

  5. Like Nikhat, I've only seen two of these - but both of them are exceptionally great movies, and I'm happy to have seen at least these.
    The Shawshank Redemption was of course an essential for this list, I don't think anybody doesn't like it.
    Hunger is a more controversial movie, however I liked it even more than The Shawshank Redemption. Films that either focus on images or dialogue instead of trying to hit a balance, are always interesting, but few films manage to make something good out of it. Hunger did - and much more. I really hope we'll see more of Steve McQueen soon.
    Good list!

    1. Thanks so much! I couldn't agree more about your thoughts on Shawshank and Hunger. I'm not sure I've ever met anyone who DIDN'T like Shawshank, and Hunger is just... wow. So powerful, so intense. I watched it last night after I published this post, and was again completely in awe of its ferocity.

      Two great, great films there.

    2. I am the only person I know who does not like Shawskank :P I agree with your praise of Darabont's use of music to change tone, and I love Morgan Freeman's acting throughout. But even as I admired the cinematography while watching it, I never felt an emotional connection to the story or characters. I kept trying to like it, since it is such a well-regarded film critically and popularly. However, I could never bring myself to care about or root for anyone in the film. I forgot about it quickly after the credits. Hunger, on the other hand, haunted me for days.

      .......but I understand I am part of the extreme minority with this opinion.

    3. Actually, I completely understand where you're coming from. I've always enjoyed the film, but I've certainly never been as hyped about it as others. So, don't worry, you're safe here haha.

      Hunger... that one still haunts me. Remarkable film.

  6. Solid list. I would also add Papillon, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. That and your top two would be my top three.

    1. Thanks man. Papillion was legit number 11 on this list. Really solid prison flick right there. Glad you're a fan of Hunger and A Prophet. Bitchin' movies.

  7. I have only seen The Hurricane, In The Name of the Father & The Shawshank Redemption and each of those could easily feature in any top 10 movie list.
    I saw In the Name of the Father when I was about 13, it was one of the first movies I can remember to genuinely shock and move me.
    I'm a big fan of The Green Mile, Sam Rockwell was amazing as Wild Bill, still I think his finest performances amongst some brilliant others.

    1. I am so glad to hear that you're a fan of In the Name of the Father, that's one that continues to be criminally ignored, and that more people most definitely need to see. Such a remarkable achievement.

      I love Rockwell's work in The Green Mile. Damn near perfect as Wild Bill.

  8. Yay! Love seeing A Prophet at #1, and it's great that Midnight Express managed to crack the top 5. Le Trou is going high on my watchlist now.

    1. Glad you dig the list! Le Trou was really engaging. Many extended sequences of no dialogue, just the action of escaping. Very good stuff.

  9. Alex, it's very cool to see Slam on your list. It's a surprisingly powerful movie that stands out because the lead performance is so good. I just caught up with A Prophet this year, and it's an excellent top choice. I'd probably put In the Name of the Father even higher. That's such a great movie. Nice job!

    1. Thanks Dan! Whew, I'm so happy to hear that someone else has not only seen Slam, but enjoyed it as well. Dan to the rescue, ha.

      In the Name of the Father is just... it's just perfect, isn't it? Thanks so much for reading!

  10. Did you consider A Man Escaped? I've yet to see a Bresson film, but I wondered if you had- and what you thought.

    1. Haven't seen that one. But I really need to.

    2. I just saw AME and its RIGHT up your street. Get to it right away man- after you're done with The Ascent, and The Leopard, and Inside Out (if you haven't already)...

      So many films, so little time :P Happy Holidays.

      Oh and I'm not sure if I mentioned it but I finally got around to Fanny & Alexander- and I'm so glad that everything you said about it was true. Divine movie :D

    3. SO glad you like Fanny and Alexander. One of my all-time favorites. I will certainly add AME to my list!