20 Underrated Prison Movies That Deserve To Break Out
The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, The Great Escape, and Cool Hand Luke are the most revered and popular films set inside prisons. If you've seen all of them yet still crave a good story set in the Big House, check out one of the following underrated prison movies. Some are little-known titles, others movies that got noticed upon their original release, only to see their status fade over time. All of them are guaranteed to absorb you.
What makes people want to spend time watching films about prisons and penitentiaries? Most likely it's because none of us would want to spend time in such places. Viewing movies about them allows us to vicariously face things that would terrify us in real life. Jails are inherently dramatic locations, anyway, where riots, hostage situations, and occasional abuses of authority occur. These underrated examples of prison cinema utilize those elements and more to give audiences a potent experience.
- 175 VOTESPhoto: Paramount Pictures
Clint Eastwood made a career playing cops like Dirty Harry Callahan, so it's fun to see him on the other side of the law in Escape from Alcatraz. He plays Frank Morris, a criminal who is sent to Alcatraz prison because he's already broken out of several other jails. Of course, he fully intends to break out of this one, too, especially after clashing with the no-nonsense warden (Patrick McGoohan). He rallies a team of fellow cons to help him pull off a complex, daring escape.
Eastwood is typically good, and typically laconic, in Escape from Alcatraz. The secret to making a story like this work is having an antagonist who's just as interesting as the hero. McGoohan fulfills that requirement perfectly. The scene where the warden first meets Frank and lays down all the rules is a masterpiece of tone. Instead of coming off as stereotypically evil, he makes it powerfully, abundantly clear that he will give no leniency on anything. That makes us want to see Frank succeed. Crisp direction from Don Siegel keeps the tension mounting.
- 218 VOTESPhoto: 20th Century Fox
Robert Redford has made so many great movies that one or two were inevitably going to slip between the cracks. Brubaker is a perfect example. This 1980 drama finds him playing Henry Brubaker, the new warden at an Arkansas prison. He arrives with the specific goal of cleaning the place up. Before starting his assignment, he posed as an inmate, witnessing first-hand atrocities ranging from the torture of inmates to rotting food being served at meals. That experience is what motivates him. The job is complicated by outside forces that are not so eager to embrace this reform.
Redford is excellent in the role, bringing his natural quiet strength to the character. In his hands, we believe that Henry Brubaker is ready for a fight and not inclined to back down. The actor projects the moral center that guides the warden. Brubaker additionally proves to be an enlightening look into the kind of corruption and malfeasance that can occasionally be found within the penal system. It's a film that makes you think at the same time that it delivers gripping entertainment.
- 317 VOTESPhoto: Universal Pictures
In the Name of the Father was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Perhaps because it didn't win any of them, the movie isn't talked about a whole lot anymore. That's too bad, because it's an incredible story. Daniel Day-Lewis is Gerry Conlon, an Irishman coerced into taking responsibility for an Irish Republican Army bombing he had nothing to do with. He ends up in jail with his father Giuseppe (Pete Postlethwaite), who gets arrested in the aftermath. Emma Thompson is Gareth Peirce, a lawyer attempting to clear Gerry and get him released.
Directed by Jim Sheridan, In the Name of the Father is based on the true story of the “Guildford Four.” Day-Lewis gives another of his committed, chameleonic performances, and he shares some emotionally devastating scenes with Postlethwaite. Both actors earned Oscar nods for their work, as did Thompson, who's magnificent as the attorney. The big award winner in 1993 was Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, which understandably overshadowed all the other films in contention that year. In a different year, this one might have been a real contender, thanks to the trio of performances and a gripping story about the toll being wrongfully imprisoned takes on Gerry Conlon.
- 415 VOTESPhoto: Silver Nitrate
Animal Factory was released by an independent distributor, and therefore didn't have a huge advertising budget. It also played in a minimal number of theaters, resulting in a domestic gross of just under $44,000. The movie is a star-studded affair, though. Edward Furlong plays Ron, a young guy sent to jail on a marijuana charge. Facing a five-year sentence, he begins to come unglued behind bars. That's when Earl (Willem Dafoe) steps in. The veteran prisoner takes Ron under his wing, protecting him and helping him deal with jail time.
Dafoe and Furlong do terrific work, striking up a friendship between their characters that feels authentic. Watching how their bond grows over time is captivating. There are equally good supporting performances from Danny Trejo, Seymour Cassel, Mickey Rourke, and Tom Arnold. Directed by Steve Buscemi - yes, that Steve Buscemi - Animal Factory is a realistic look at the difficulties of trying to survive in jail, where conditions are harsh and the people can be difficult. The mixture of grittiness and surprising tenderness really pulls you in.
- 539 VOTESPhoto: Vertigo Films
Bronson stars Tom Hardy as Michael Peterson, a tougher-than-nails guy who gets seven years in the slammer for robbing a jewelry store. It turns out that being in jail both suits him perfectly and doesn't suit him at all. Peterson has a penchant for picking fights with guards and fellow prisoners. That lands him in solitary confinement, where he shifts his personality, morphing into “Charles Bronson.” Letting his new identity out of solitary only leads to violence that escalates to a whole other level.
Hardy is magnificent in a tough role. Bronson is based on a true story, one that's hard to believe because it doesn't seem logical that someone could be so uncontrollably violent. The actor sidesteps that issue by making the character's twisted psychology come alive. Director Nicholas Winding Refn gives the picture a great, gritty style, while also staging the fighting sequences with the necessary brutality. All in all, this is a gripping portrait of a remarkably disturbed individual.
- 628 VOTESPhoto: Columbia Pictures
Many prison movies are about hardened, violent criminals. Stir Crazy is different, in that it's about two men who are completely ill-equipped to be in that kind of setting. Skip (Gene Wilder) and Harry (Richard Pryor) are best friends who get set up to take the fall for a crime they didn't commit. They're sentenced to 125 years in jail, a place where they utterly panic. At first, they try to fake insanity. When that doesn't work, they plot an escape centered around the prison's upcoming rodeo.
The comic chemistry between Wilder and Pryor is at its peak in Stir Crazy. The material is perfectly suited to their strengths, and the actors take that material and spin it into something utterly hilarious. Of the four films they made together, this one was the biggest hit. Legendary actor Sidney Poitier directed, and he demonstrates an awareness of how to let his stars do their thing without too much interference. Anyone looking for non-stop laughter from two legendary comedians should certainly check out Stir Crazy.