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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
Yakoo, maker and creator of the devil! Swine merchant, your time is near at hand. Fuck with me, and your time will be now. Your presence here affects the mind of my people like a fever. You, yakoo, are the bearer of 9,999 diseases: evil, corrupt pork-chop-eating atrocities!
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I don't know how much of a human being I would be if I met you on the sidewalk.
Short Eyes is directed by Robert M. Young and written by Miguel Piñero who adapts from his own play. It stars Bruce Davison, Jose Perez, Nathan George, Don Blakely, Curtis Mayfield and Shawn Elliott.
The Tombs, A House of Detention in New York City receives a new prisoner, white middle classed Clark Davis (Davison). He's charged with raping a young girl, quickly identified as a Short Eyes (paedophile) by the other inmates and lined up for hostility from the off. Only one prisoner is prepared to engage Clark in conversation, but with atmosphere on the block already bubbling at breaking point, Clark's innocence or guilt is most likely irrelevant.
One of the most sedate but effective prison based movies out there, Short Eyes comes with realism, intelligence and a conscience. Piñero's play was itself a success, so source was reliable for treatment, what transpires is a tale of prisoners co-existing under trying circumstances. But it's a hornets nest slowly being stirred by pent up sexual frustrations, egos, racial indifference and religion, once the suspected paedophile wanders into the equation you can literally see the tension starting to rise to the surface. Yet director and writer don't go for cliché prison shocks involving violence and rape, they gnaw away at the viewers by letting the hatred and break down of moral codes build by way of rich characterisations and dialogue. It helps greatly that the makers have started the picture off by giving us a solid 20 minutes of character build ups, thus letting us get to know the inhabitants and their place of incarceration.
Unity is powerful, but it can also be ugly.
Some of the monologue's are utterly compelling, delivered with extraordinary conviction by a cast keeping the material real. When the excellent Davison, who I applaud for taking on the sort of role many actors would run from, gets to pour out his words to Juan (Perez), it's most uncomfortable viewing, yet also it's heartbreaking as well. It was here that it dawned on me that Piñero's (himself an ex-convict) characters are not prison film stereotypes, they are complex human beings, neither sympathetic or villainous, and that's a real treat in this particular genre of film. The photography is purposely low-key and the music, mostly arranged by Soul maestro Curtis Mayfield (who also co-stars) eases around the prison walls. Both Mayfield and Freddy Fender get to sing and this acts as means to subdue the pressure cooker like mood.
This is not a prison film for those that need animalistic violence, this is very much a thinking persons prison piece. What violence there is is calmly constructed and acted by director and cast alike. The pivotal moment shocks, and rightly so, but here's the kicker, it doesn't shock as much as the monologue that closes out this most compelling and excellent of movies. 9/10
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