Cell 211 is a thriller and a prison move, and it's excellent in both respects. As with any first-rate thriller, Cell 211 will keep you perched nervously on the edge of your seat while a collection of frightening contingencies holds sway over the lives of the participants. As with any good prison movie, you'll find yourself uncertain, going back and forth about whom to cheer for. Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? And what is the source of this doubt and confusion? Am I a hopelessly misguided bleeding heart or what? Yes, a first-rate thriller and a first-rate prison move, but a good deal more.
Cell 211 is fundamentally a movie about the uncertainty that, usually unnoticed, pervades modern life, the risks that are not acknowledged until circumstances and happenstance force them upon us. We are typically oblivious, not even off-handedly acknowledging the things that could go wrong. If it were otherwise, we'd go mad because there are just too many unforeseeable horrors. If you're naturally lucky or exceptionally privileged, the force-feeding of unexpected and terrible outcomes can be minimized. After all, rich people don't become prison guards and rarely go to jail. But the risks, even for them, are never completely eliminated. That's just the way the world works. That's why risk assessment has become formally institutionalized in modern organizations.
Even those who are ostentatiously cynical and who complain about the bad hand they've been dealt or the corruption and incompetence that pervade our world are vulnerable to the nastiest surprises. Cynicism is no safeguard against being taken frighteningly unaware. Pain and loss, even at their most abstract and inclusive, don't exhaust the demeaning, brutalizing, identity destroying outcomes, because they so often come as a complete shock, totally unexpected, taking forms that never occurred to us, and bringing to the fore thoughts and feelings that were once alien to our nature, but now, shockingly, we harbor them.
Why so? Because whatever our character, we have come to trust the world, thinking we know how it works, that there will be no real surprises, passing judgment and making decisions without recognizing that everything rests on a shaky foundation. Modern institutions, whether the criminal justice system, politics, religion, medicine, marriage and the family -- extend the list indefinitely -- provide us with a repertoire of commonsense expectations based on totally inadequate man-in-the-street knowledge. When the expectations aren't met, when prison guards beat to death innocent women and do so with impunity, we become outraged, confused, wary, and mistrustful. But eventually we calm down and go back to equanimity, back to a marginally modified but still intact set of expectations and taken-for-granted assumptions that trick us into making the world livable. Most of the time.
On occasion, however, the failures of modern society and the institutions we take for granted even as we sardonically berate them take a toll too heavy to bear. We see life for what it is, a crap game with rules that are routinely broken in countless ways for countless reasons, and even the people closest to us may let us down, if only because they are mortal and may simply die, leaving us alone. The arbitrary conventions that made the world interpretable and trustworthy are so badly out of whack that we retreat into psychosis, betray brethren, die prematurely from one natural cause or another, ineffectually rebel, immerse ourselves heart and soul in a meaningless social cause, or just quit, which may or may not involve suicide. This is the world that gave rise to a place and locus of activity with the sterile, bureaucratic designation Cell 211.
But let's stop for a moment. This is a prison movie. The convicts deserve to be where they are. What happens happens. Right? In this case there are notable exceptions, conspicuous institutional failures, and these are just the plainly obvious ones, and they are not the only victims. One failure begets another. For the long term, we have a dark, chilling, desperate view of the world in intense microcosm. So, yes, Cell 211 is a thriller and a prison movie, but it's a good deal more. It's life as a crap game loaded with grotesque surprises.