Rating: ★★★½☆

From its wincingly grisly opening image of a prison inmate slitting his wrists, Cell 211 is a savagely unforgiving prison drama. Though we’ve seen this sort of story time and again in everything from The Shawshank Redemption to Prison Break, this Spanish thriller – the winner of 8 Goya awards in its native country – earns through its raw brutality and unapologetic melodrama more favourable comparisons to HBO’s hit drama Oz.

We can sense the air of resignation early on in Cell 211, as newbie prison officer Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann) is toured around his place of work by a few world-weary colleagues. How much can officers really contribute to correcting these people, or will their authority simply reinforce the unsavoury behaviour? It is a question, an ever current one, which the film asks in its opening minutes, and it echoes throughout, right up to the grim final frames. In this prison, inmates flagrantly continue ŧo run their empires and operate as criminals, one even having improvised an impressive spring-loaded crossbow-type weapon. Depressingly, but surely truthfully, to the guards, it’s just another day. That is, until a riot breaks out.

Get past the central contrivance early on – that the guards leave Juan, injured by some falling debris, in the middle of the riot while high-tailing it to safety – and you get a film that quickly ratchets up the tension and intrigue, and doesn’t let up. When a film takes only ten minutes to establish its premise and get the ball rolling, it’s usually a sign of absolute confidence in the long game, and here, director Daniel Monzón flaunts his product’s adrenaline-infused suspense with an effortless skill.

Once recovering from his injury, Juan thinks quickly and decides to take on the guise of an inmate. The conceit works because Juan isn’t some bunny-stunned screw who deliberates endlessly over what to do; he quickly, resoucesfully slips into the role of inmate and has plenty of gall to stand up to the other inmates, which keeps things fresh. His exchanges with the prison’s de facto leader, Malamadre (Luis Tosar), are both incredibly tense and wryly funny, boasting enough gallows humour that the film never becomes too wrapped up in its own grimness.

Also helped by a dynamic, fast-moving plot, the film branches off later to examine a clever strategic play by the prisoners – as they use a group of valued political prisoners as bargaining chips – and benefits massively from plenty of smart psychology; Juan is literally lying to save his life, and inevitably, the moral shades of grey begin to creep in. While Malamadre is a savage, he does in his own way retain a sense of twisted honour, even to those who you wouldn’t in a million years expect. Given how keenly the beaurocrats on the other side of the bars reach to save only their own hides, it’s a powerful statement, though thankfully not one shouted from a soapbox.

A potentially uneasy subplot which creeps in – of Juan’s pregnant wife trying to locate him – may initially seem like nothing but flab, with its caperish, even contrived nature. It does, however, ultimately set the bracingly intense third act in motion, as a consistent barrage of twists and shocks abound to riveting ends.

Its ultimate commentary could easily have turned into a juvenile statement about the honour system between criminals having a more savage nobility than the shrewd callousness of bureaucracy. Instead this is a film simply keen to observe how the line can be blurred and understanding can be forged between opposite poles under extraordinary circumstances, which it does incredibly effectively with blistering violence and intensity.

On the surface this is a relatively familiar prison thriller, yet when executed with panache of such disarming brutality and tension, it finds room to distinguish itself in an overcrowded genre.

Cell 211 is released in the U.K. tomorrow.

Get more like this direct to your Facebook feed.

Want to write about the stuff you're passionate about and GET PAID? Click here to become a contributor.

This article was first posted on July 14, 2011