Some Thoughts On… Cell 211 (2009)

Based on a novel by Francisco Pérez Gandul, Daniel Monzon’s prison drama Celda 211 hits the ground running.  Without wasting a single shot or line of dialogue, Monzon introduces us to the film’s setting and many of its principle characters: Juan (Alberto Ammann) is the new guard at a prison where violent offenders are kept separated from the general population. Malamadre (Luis Tosar) is one of these violent offenders, a violent offender who orchestrates a riot in order to bring attention to the failures of the current prison regime.  As alarms sound and roofs collapse, Juan finds himself abandoned in an empty cell by his new colleagues.  Aware that the rioting inmates will kill him if they find out that he is a guard, Juan decides to pass himself off as a newly arrived prisoner.

Boasting some of the most elegantly simple and unadorned storytelling I have ever seen, Cell 211 starts by building up an incredible amount of tension in very little time. Not only does Juan have to convince Malamadre’s gang that he is a prisoner, he also has to guide Malamadre’s actions so as to both minimise bloodshed and maximise his own chances of getting out alive. While tensions build inside the prison, they also begin to build outside as prison administrators find themselves trapped between the desire to cover up Juan’s capture and the desire to get him out safely. In what slowly emerges as one of the film’s recurring visual motifs, black-clad SWAT teams swarm over roof-tops and stand poised to storm the building before a compromise is reached and mass slaughter is averted.

Half an hour into this film, I was convinced that I was seeing a work of real vision. Aside from building tension like a master, Monzon also reveals himself to be a dab hand at actor wrangling as Juan emerges as an intriguing character with an intense relationship with both his wife and the charismatic sociopath Malamadre. However, having introduced us to all of these fascinating balls and thrown them gracefully up into the air, Monzon promptly forgets how to juggle and they all come crashing down on the ground.  Indeed, the first act complete, Cell 211 loses focus horribly as plot lines unravel in all directions, spilling tension as they go. Needless to say, my heart sank.

Then Monzon begins the process all over again as something dreadful happens on the outside and Juan decides to throw his lot in with the prisoners.  Suddenly aware both that Juan may not be in his right mind and that he might be a guard, Malamadre finds himself trapped between his loyalty to Juan, his convict’s hatred of guards and his suspicion that Juan is right when he says that all this is going to end badly.  Again, Monzon does a brilliant job of stoking up the tension and again, he allows it all to slip away as the film resolves in an ugly and unsatisfying mess.

The problem is that, while Monzon knows how to build tension, his commitment to the film’s characters is such that he is unwilling to simplify their arcs for the sake of the over-arching narrative.  As a result, tension builds and builds until denouement at which point the film switches to a melodramatic register in which characters respond in great depth to everything that has just happened and, like a river flowing into a vast set of swamps, all urgency is lost forever in the murky heat of soap-operatic swampland.  Of course, this is not to say that the melodrama is boring to watch… far from it.  Luis Tosar’s Malamadre is a wonderful combination of outer toughness and inner softness mediated by a keen mind.  Similarly, Alberto Ammann does a great job of presenting a character so skilled at thinking on his feet that he cannot stop plotting even when his world starts to come apart. With so many conflicting agendas and competing factions at work, Cell 211 also works as a commentary upon the Spanish prison system and public attitudes to prisoners.  However, while there is no denying that this film is smart and possesses some brilliant moments of tension and character-based drama, I cannot help but feel that co-writers Daniel Monzon and Jorge Guerricaechevarria failed to make the sorts of tough decisions you need to make in order to adapt a novel for the screen. I suspect that Cell 211’s changes of pace and register work quite nicely in a novelistic context as the increased time of consumption means that characters have more space to bloom and changes in register are less sudden and jarring.  However, reduced to a 113 minute running time, Cell 211 needed to be either a character-based melodrama or a thriller set in a prison as, while Monzon handles both elements with equal panache, his attempts to force the two together are distracting to say the least.