While none of us want to spend time behind bars, we seem to have a morbid fascination about what life is like on the inside, and what it would take to escape! Luckily most of us can get our fix with a good old-fashioned prison film.
Unlike almost any other genre, most prison movies are serious action films, we rarely see a comedy take (though there is one on our list). I suppose this is because the loss of our freedom is one of the things people fear most. Seeing life from a prisoner’s perspective can make us feel morally ambiguous and we believe that crime should be punished, but feel for the suffering of our protagonists.
So if you are looking to feel a little morally ambiguous tonight, here are the 15 best prison films currently available on Netflix.
A Twelve Year Night (2018)
A pretty new movie from director Alvaro Brencher, and movie from Uruguay, this might be one you haven’t already seen. It looks at the 12-year incarceration of Tupamaros, a left-wing urban guerrilla group active in the 1960s and 70s. In the film, some of our protagonists are kidnapped by representatives of the military dictatorship. The kidnappers aren’t allowed to kill the prisoners, but they are allowed to try and drive them mad. Three men are left in solitary confinement for 12 years, including a future present of Uruguay. Launched at the Venice Film Festival, it was selected as the Uruguayan entry for Best Foreign Language Film.
Chapo: El Escape del Siglo (2016)
While the movie actually never mentions the name El Chapo, this movie nevertheless recounts the prison escape of the Mexican dug kingpin Joaquin Guzman Loera, aka El Chapo. We see the Mexican government trying to return him to prison, while the US government wants him dead. Not the best made movie, but an interesting look at the story, leading actor Irineo Alvarez does a good job carrying the movie. Sadly, it is definitely not as good as the 2017 Story House Entertainment TV series starring Marco de la O.
The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)
Who doesn’t like a good story of revenge? Based on the classic 1844 novel by Alexandre Dumas, it tells the story of Edmond Dantes, who is imprisoned in Chateau d’If for 13 years before managing to hatch his escape. Of course on gaining his freedom he sets out to get revenge on the friend who put him there and, of course, stole his girl. This movie will always be memorable for introducing most of us to the talent of Jim Caviezel. Guy Pierce also makes another amazing villainous turn.
The Experiment (2010)
While not involving ‘real’ inmates, this film certainly takes a good look at the psychology of prison life. Volunteers arrive for a psychological study where half will act as prisoners and half as guards. They are given strict rules to follow and told they will be paid if they can follow the rules for two weeks, and that the experiment will be stopped at the first sign of violence. Sounds easy, but the weight of their roles starts to play on the psychology of the players. This movie is based on a real experiment which shows what prison conditions do to people, and not just the inmates.
The Fear of 13 (2015)
The only documentary film that we have snuck onto the list, this film by David Sington tells the story of Nick Yarris, a convicted murder who spent 21 years on death row in Pennsylvania. He was released in 2004 when DNA evidence proved his innocence. Yarris is the only person to appear on film throughout the documentary, and he tells a compelling and painfully honest story. Launched at the 2015 London Film Festival, it was nominated by best documentary. It certainly takes a British view of the American justice system.
The Green Mile (1999)
Adapted from a Stephen King novel and starring Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan, this was always a must-see film. The film focuses on Paul (played by Hanks obviously) a death row officer during the Great Depression. One of Paul’s new inmates John (played by Clarke Duncan) is a gentle if slow black man accused of raping and murdering two white girls. In the brutality of the prison, John soon starts displaying supernatural powers, which prove to Paul his innocence. What can Paul do in these circumstances? I guess you will need to watch to find out.
I Love You Phillip Morris (2009)
Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor on film together as lovers, yes please. Carrey plays a con artist who finds himself in prison and falls in love with his fellow inmate, Phillip Morris (McGregor). They do through a series of releases and prison breaks in order to be together. Based on a true story, this directorial debut from Glenn Ficarra and John Requa has just the right balance of heart and comedy. While it might not have the grit that most people are looking for when it comes to prison movies, it won’t disappoint.
Another foreign film making it onto the list, this time from Cambodia, this is probably more of an action film set in a prison than a prison movie per se. The suspected head of a vicious gang known as the Butterfly Gang is arrested. In order to mitigate his sentence, he offers to reveal the real leader of the gang, who of course puts a bounty on his head. This causes everyone in the prison to fight to get their hands on the traitor first, who must be defended by the police who failed to leave the prison before the fighting began. Sounds formulaic, but surprisingly well made and acted, and a good action watch.
On My Skin (2018)
An Italian prison drama from director Alessio Cremonini, the film stars Alessandro Borghi as Stefano Cucchi, who died in 2009 in unexplained circumstances. After being arrested on a minor drugs charge, Cucchi is held in preventive custody, where he loses a lot of weight, seems to have been beaten up, and then suddenly died. In this film, Cucchi’s family battle to learn the truth about what happened to him. Launched at the Venice Film Festival, it was the opener of the Horizons section. It is designed to make us ask questions.
Police Officer Jack Stone orchestrates a bank robbery specifically to get himself thrown into prison with the notorious Russian gangster Balam who seems to be able to control both the mob and the police from behind bars. Jack (Matthew Reese) pursues Balam (Chuck Liddel), who lives in surprisingly cushy surroundings, in order to avenge the death of his family (of course). Formulaic, this is a fin no thinker, and we get to see an older Dolph Lundgren strut his stuff, for nostalgia’s sake.
The Rock (1996)
Prison movie directed by Michael Bay and starring Sean Connery, Nicholas Care and Ed Harris – yes please. An FBI chemist (Cage) and an SAS captain (Connery) are tasked with stopping a group f rogue US Force Recon Marines (led by Harris) who have seized control of Alcatraz – the ultimate prison – and attach San Francisco. While this might seem formulaic, it blurs the line between right and wrong and offers enough twists to keep you hooked. Plus, Sean Connery speaking, what more could you want.
Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Probably the best prison movie of all time, it is definitely one to watch while it is still available to stream. A man, played by Tim Robbins, is sent to prison for life for a crime that the audience probably thinks he didn’t commit. He must learn to live in his new environment, and learns the stories of the other inmates, in particular Red played by Morgan Freedman, and that not everything in the world is black and white. The twist at the end is also pretty crazy. It was nominated for seven academy awards in 1995, though didn’t gain the gong.
Shot Caller (2017)
Since we are all a bit obsessed with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau following his rise to fame in Game of Thrones, this is a great film for exploring what else the actor has to offer. In this American film, Coster-Waldau plays a family man who does to jail for 16 months after causing the death of his friend in a car accident. He finds himself doing the unthinkable when he is forced to join a white supremacist group in the prison in order to survive. Coster-Waldau plays the gritty character well, and makes us all question what we would do to survive.
Son of a Gun (2014)
An Australian crime thriller directed by Julius Avery, it stars the always impressive Ewan McGregor alongside a top-notch Australian cast. A new young inmate, played by Brenton Thwaites, arrives in prison he comes to the attention of the charismatic Brendan Lynch (McGregor), Australia’s public enemy no. 1. In exchange for protection within the brutal walls of the prison, our hero agrees to do favours for Lynch after his release in six months, including help him escape. The film is gritty and smart, and good to see McGregor plating a different character.
Dean Cain (yes of Lois and Clarke fame) stars as a detective who deliberately gets arrested to avenge the murder of his wife (sound familiar?). While in prison he discovers yet another criminal enterprise that he, as a good detective, must now thwart. This is part of a six-film deal with WWE studios as stars wrestler Big Show as one of our criminals. This is another film that sticks to formula, but if you are a fan of the genre, is not a bad way to spend a few hours.