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.
10. Slam (1998)
As the stanzas grow more powerful, the silent crowd around Ray grows more interested. An eerily commanding moment.
9. Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
8. The Hurricane (1999)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.