Cell 211 is a pressure cooker of a film. It places us right in the middle of a threatening, unstable situation and then gradually turns up the heat, developing and sustaining an unremitting sense of tension. From the way the film opens – showing us a prisoner slicing his own wrists – it's obvious that this is going to be a tough picture to watch, but I wasn't quite prepared for how tough director Daniel Monzón made it, and how firm his grasp on my nerves would be for almost all of the movie's 113 minutes. He wastes little time setting his story in motion. We join young prison officer Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann) as he tours the jail that he is due to begin working at the next day. This facility is the home to some of Spain's most notoriously dangerous criminals, but it's also a decrepit building that's undergoing some much-needed maintenance work, and Juan finds himself standing in the wrong place at the wrong time when a chunk of the ceiling falls away and knocks him unconscious.
It's the kind of contrivance that Cell 211 occasionally uses to drive its narrative forward, but Monzón doesn't give us time to contemplate the feasibility of its plot developments. When Juan is out cold he is placed in the eponymous cell to recover, but at that moment all hell breaks loose and the prison guards escorting him flee, leaving the Juan to wake up alone and in the middle of a full-blown riot. Acting fast, Juan quickly ditches anything that could identify him as an outsider – his wedding ring, wallet, phone, shoelaces and belt – and assumes the identity of a murderer who is just starting his sentence. This is the kind of race-against-time sequence that Monzón excels at, and he frequently puts Juan in tight situations, forcing the anxious guard to think on his feet as he attempts to maintain his façade. Can he convince the hardened criminals that he is one of them? Can he get crucial messages to the authorities on the outside? Can he stay alive as the prison falls into chaos around him?
Above all, can he stay on the right side of Malamadre, the intimidating inmate who has coordinated this riot and who essentially runs the prison from the inside? Malamadre is played by the extraordinarily charismatic Luis Tosar, and if there's an actor working in cinema right now who has a scarier set of eyes, then I haven't seen him. When first confronted with this new arrival, Malamadre sizes him up, glaring at Juan from beneath his bushy brows, deciding whether this man can be trusted and how useful he can be. Malamadre has brawn but he also has brains, and he holds all the cards in this situation. With three ETA inmates under his control within the block, the authorities are impotent, fearful of terrorist reprisals across the country if any of these political prisoners should perish. The relationship between Malamadre and Juan is the driving force behind Cell 211, becoming a far more complex and interesting relationship than you might imagine. An uneasy bond develops between the pair; Juan knowing that staying tight with Malamadre is the key to his safety, and Malamadre seeing a useful ally in his unusually intelligent and well-spoken new comrade.
Monzón directs with an impressive forthrightness and economy. The atmosphere within the prison is authentically claustrophobic and intimidating, which is largely due to the mixture of real cons and suitably scary-looking actors that the director has used (the awesomely creepy Luis Zahera being the most memorable), and he knows exactly when to release the pent-up tension with a burst of violence or cutaway. The screenplay that he has written with Jorge Guerricaechevarría (from the novel by Francisco Pérez Gandul) is skilfully assembled with narrative twists that frequently alter our perception of the characters and their situation. Some of these feel forced – notably the insertion of Juan's pregnant wife (Marta Etura) into the mix – but they keep us on the edge of our seat and further provoke Juan's increasingly troubling identity crisis.
I think that's what I liked most about Cell 211. While many films involving a 'good' character undercover might have strained to ensure their protagonist's hands stayed clean, Cell 211 isn't afraid of compromising its hero. Juan finds himself committing acts that would have been inconceivable just hours earlier and his loyalties gradually shift as circumstances within the prison rapidly spiral out of control. By the end of the film an unlikely companionship has been forged between the two principal characters, and Cell 211 is an engrossing portrait of what happens to people when they are placed in extreme situations. Predictably enough, the American remake rights to Cell 211 have already been snapped up, but Daniel Monzón's brutal, gripping movie is the one to seek out.