Character actor Michael Shannon has been nominated for his second Oscar for his role in the 2016 thriller Nocturnal Animals. "No Small Parts" takes a look at some of the other characters he's played in the past.
A young man who is charged with child molestation is placed in New York City's infamous Tombs prison. When the other inmates in his cell block find out what he is charged with, life becomes extremely difficult for him. Written by
Short Eyes is yet another 70's flick lost until recently in the world of obscure VHS,various licensing and grey market bootlegs. However, it is one of the best dramas of the decade and deserved the DVD re-release.
The story centers about the denizens of "The Tombs", the Men's House of Detention in Manhattan, where it was filmed. Like many other prison-centered scripts, it fleshes out the microcosmic aspect of a isolated society and provides the alternate racial existence on "the inside" (where white is the minority). The story establishes the environment inside, outlining the groups and nearly making the life seem manageable. Then a white middle-class inmate arrives and is quickly exposed by a guard as a accused child molester, or short eyes. The group at large quickly responds as we see what this society really deems offensive.
Along the way we experience religious presence, soulful expression, prison hierarchy, sexual intimidation, mental coercion, utter rage, blinding fear, confiding, alienation and displacement. In other words, the range of emotions from several characters displays to the viewer the depth and severity of how living in a world where entropy is the only constant. There is a passage in the movie where the complete ambivalence of every person becomes evident; there are no longer any allies or any semblance of trust when it is exposed that everyone will take what they want when possible. The guards are an important part of the population but there is no real opposition there- no protagonists to speak of, only a film of corruption over the cruel survivalist scene. Stirring, impassioned material.
While there are no big stars in this, an independent adaptation of Miguel Pinero's early 70's play, it still has some amazing performances. Jose Perez does a stellar job as the one prisoner who can tolerate speaking with the 'short eyes'. Prolific character actor Bruce Davison is outstanding as the conflicted and confused molester, who cannot weather this change of environment. Nathan George, a great character actor who remained busy in the 70's, is in fine form here. Joseph Carberry is the central white inmate and wears his hate and mistrust as a badge of identity. And of course, there is no forgetting the cameos by the late Curtis Mayfield and Freddy Fender. In one group scene, Fender engages in a song ("Break The Dawn") captivating the entire population, an amazing slow soulful track that is matched by the following Mayfield song, "Do Do Wap is Strong In Here". Two smoky, slow-burn tracks sung by two legends that literally soothes the savagery here. A rewindable, unforgettable classic scene.
In an extra note, superb modern Latino actor Luis Guzman appears as an extra here in his first film appearance. Look for him in the above Mayfield/Fender song sequence and in a few other scenes, sporting a blowout afro.
There is ample reason why this is often referred to as a 'prison/horror film' but its really a stark, tense drama. Coupled with the Benjamin Bratt-lead Pinero, this is one of the best ways to get a taste of the lost genius of Miguel Pinero. The DVD issue of Short Eyes features a commentary track by the director along with Leon Ichaso, director of Pinero. Although there is much left open about this masterpiece, the commentary truly adds a lot of miscellaneous info that fans like myself would appreciate. Not to be missed.
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