On the day before he’s due to start his new job as a prison guard, Juan (Alberto Ammann) visits the penitentiary to meet his coworkers and get a feel for the place. Then a riot breaks out, and the inmates seize control. While the officers hole up in their quarters to await the SWAT team, Juan is stranded on the wrong side of the ruckus and forced to pass himself off as a just-arrived inmate — a sheep among the wolves who immediately circle him, sniffing suspiciously.
Celda 211 (Cell 211) requires you to look past a couple of contrivances in order to enjoy its main scenario: How quickly can the ruinous nature of prison life corrupt an innocent, moral man? The inmate in charge of the riot is Malamadre (Luis Tosar), a tall, bald brute with a fearsome glare and propensity for violence. Malamadre is the convicts’ undisputed boss, but he’s neither dumb nor impetuous, and although he doesn’t quite believe Juan’s story of having committed first-degree murder, he recognizes the newbie’s intelligence and quick wits and puts them to use.
While Juan’s pregnant girlfriend Elena (Marta Etura) nervously waits for news, the tension in the prison mounts as hostages are taken and demands made. Director Daniel Monzon, resourceful on his limited budget, includes a subplot involving ETA terrorists and the Basque government that plays better if you’re aware of recent Spanish history.
But Cell 211 really hinges on the performances of Ammann, desperate and scared as a law-abiding man whose hands grow bloodier each minute he’s trapped inside the prison, and Tosar, magnetic and commanding as the big boss whose eyes never miss a trick. Their battle of wits is exciting and suspenseful, and just when you think you know how the story is going to end, the movie throws a gigantic curveball. The real horrors in Cell 211 don’t have much to do with life behind bars: They’re more about the cold, steely hearts of men capable of anything — and how easily we, too, can become one of them.
Cast: Alberto Ammann, Luis Tosar, Antonio Resines, Marta Etura, Carlos Bardem.
Director: Daniel Monzon.
Screenwriters: Jorge Guerricaechevarria, Daniel Monzon.
Producers: Emma Lustres, Borja Pena, Juan Gordon.
Running time: 105 minutes. In Spanish with English subtitles. Vulgar language, violence, gore, adult themes.