Every few years a motion picture comes along that tries to say something relevant about the whole incarceration system that hasn’t been said before. You know what I mean? The picture will spin plenty of yarn about how the punishment never really fits the crime or how the crime itself was nothing by comparison to the damage being done to those locked away in prison cells. That topic alone is certainly debatable, but what happens when you add to such story the idea of fundamental, fire-and-brimstone parables? Could it be that every sentenced offender is actually someone trapped between God and the Devil in some spiritual battle of wills?
CELL 213 takes that interesting idea but then muddies the waters far too much for me to make much sense of it.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the product packaging: “After a gruesome twist of circumstance, criminal defense attorney Michael Gray (Eric Balfour) finds himself incarcerated in South River State Penitentiary, framed for the murder of one of his clients. Locked inside Cell 213, he falls prey to unnatural forces that are vying for his soul, while the question of his guilt and innocence hangs in the balance.”
Hocus pocus loss of focus!
It’s hard to figure what to make of CELL 213, and – once again – I tend to think the fault rests somewhere between Maninder Chana’s laborious script and what director Stephen Kay arduously committed to film. The idea of examining the ideas of faith in the prison setting isn’t anything new, but what Chana and Kay apparently set out to do here was ratchet up the tension by adding layer upon layer of horror-film-complexity: they suggest that the penal system might very well be the tools of Good versus Evil. (This, of course, presupposes that there is a God. Oh, but there’s definitely a Devil!) That in and of itself is a compelling idea, but no matter how hard these players (Balfour is joined by the reliable Bruce Greenwood as warden and Michael Rooker as the obligatory abusive prison guard who must’ve done something to his wife) try to convince me they knew what to make of this it just didn’t come together.
Respectfully, some of that is due to the fact that Gray truly IS guilty here. (Important plot point: notice that ‘gray’ lies somewhere between ‘black’ and ‘white.’ Important plot point #2: oh, yeah, and the white guy has to have a black guy friend!) Without spoiling it, he isn’t guilty of what he’s convicted of, but it becomes clear that he isn’t the squeaky-clean, underwear-model lawyer he’s made out to be in the film’s opening sequence. Nor did he surround himself with such role models on the outside. In some respects, one could argue that Gray gets what he deserves, even though the heart-of-gold prison investigator Audrey Davis (a delicious Deborah Valente) thinks not only is life unfair but also so is the criminal justice system.
Rarely do I stumble across something so chocked full of solidly formulaic ideas that fails to deliver any enthralling central message. Instead, director Kay sacrifices subtlety for some relatively predictable ‘ghost story’ cinematography without clarifying whether or not the ghosts were real, manufactured, or imagined. (That, and he stages several sequences to draw out far longer than they ever needed to be, which is never a good thing to do in an already hopefully ‘cerebral’ picture.) Good becomes evil only because evil is pervasive, leaving good people to make only flawed decision (or good ones far too late to do anything about them). Evil may sacrifice itself to save good (???), but you’ll never ever know why since it wasn’t ‘good’ in the first place!
At the end of it all, the simple truth is that there have been some truly great pictures about what the human spirit endures as a result of being incarcerated. This just isn’t one of them.
CELL 213 (2010) is produced by Access Motion Pictures. DVD distribution is being handled by Entertainment One (aka E One Entertainment). As for the technical specifications, this is one smartly made release, and it offers up some high quality sights and sounds. Lastly, if you’re looking for special features, then I have the sad, sad duty to inform you that there aren’t any: I don’t know if that’s so much of a miss, though I would’ve liked some kind of explanation from the writer or director as to what they thought was truly going on here.
(MILDLY) RECOMMENDED. It isn’t that CELL 213 doesn’t have something to offer: it has a dynamic premise, and – so far as an allegorical Department of Corrections tale goes – somewhere along the way it lost sight of the story it was trying to tell while instead embracing this grand metaphor (incarceration as a form of penance). What audiences are left with is a murky cautionary tale that sacrifices the accounting of a man’s twist fate in favor of a nifty idea.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Entertainment One (aka E One Entertainment) provided me with a DVD copy of CELL 213 by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.