Juan (Ammann) is a 30-year-old who has taken a job as a prison guard to support his pregnant wife Elena (Etura). But during his first tour of the cellblocks, a riot breaks out and he's stuck in a cell that has a dark history. Now surrounded by marauding inmates led by the charismatic Malamadre (Tosar), Juan pretends to be a prisoner himself. And as a violent guard (Resines) and a weaselly government official (Moron) show their true colours, Juan starts to take the prisoners' side. Then the situation takes some violent turns.
Shot without any pretence like an earthy documentary, the film is completely centred on its characters, which gives us several points of resonance. We can instantly identify with Juan's terror at his predicament, which is an odyssey of brutality. Within minutes he knows he must become a very different person to the man he is at home, seen in glowing flashbacks. But filmmaker Monzon carefully refuses to either sensationalise the menace or sentimentalise the happy couple.
That said, Monzon does have a rather self-conscious approach to physicality (cutting away from nudity or violence, except for one particularly graphic suicide). And beyond the complexities of the prisoners, the script leaves little room for shades of grey in the shady officials and guards, who are always clearly signposted as "good" or "bad", while Elena is never anything but a pure innocent.
Fortunately, the cast is so strong that they breathe life into even the most monochromatic characters. Novice film actor Ammann is terrific as a slightly too-pretty man who has to become a ruthless thug, and quick. His interaction with the always-electric Tosar is riveting, especially as Tosar so beautifully draws out Malamadre's intricate layers. And Resines also makes much more of his vile character than is in the script. In the end, it's the performances that lift this film into something genuinely unmissable.
Run time: 113 mins
In Theaters: Friday 6th November 2009
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Production compaines: Canal+, La Fabrique 2, La Fabrique de Films, Morena Films, Sofica Europacorp, Sofica Soficinéma 4, Telecinco Cinema, Vaca Films
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Fresh: 34 Rotten: 1
IMDB: 7.7 / 10
Director: Daniel Monzon
Producer: Emma Lustres, Borja Pena, Juan Gordon, Alvaro Augustin
Screenwriter: Jorge Guerricaechevarria, Daniel Monzon
Starring: Luis Tosar as Malamadre, Alberto Ammann as Juan Oliver, Antonio Resines as José Utrilla, Carlos Bardem as Apache, Félix Cubero as Germán, Marta Etura as Elena, Luis Zahera as Releches, Fernando Soto as Armando Nieto, Vicente Romero as Tachuela, Patxi Bisquert as Jon Arteaga, Manolo Solo as Prison Director, Josean Bengoetxea as Antxon Elorza 'El Profesor', Anartz Zuazua as Asier Urruticoechea
Also starring: Juan Gordon
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