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Short Eyes

Posted by martinteller on March 18, 2013

At the Manhattan House of Detention, the inmates barely maintain an uneasy détente between the blacks, the Puerto Ricans, and the whites.  Tensions flare up with regularity, both within and between the groups.  But they manage to unite against a common enemy: Clark Davis (Bruce Davison).  Davis is being held on suspicion of child molestation… he’s a “short eyes”, the lowest rung on the lowest ladder.  Davis turns to sympathetic Juan (José Pérez) for guidance and protection, but the odds are against him.

I’ve been curious about this movie for a long time because the soundtrack is by one of my favorites, Curtis Mayfield.  What I didn’t know was that he actually has a small role in the film (that’s him in the glasses above) as a would-be peacemaker… a fitting role for the writer of songs like “We Got to Have Peace” and “People Get Ready”.  He’s even featured prominently in one scene, where first Freddie Fender (a musical icon in his right, though one I’m far less familiar with) sings a soulful a capella with percussive accompaniment by the other inmates, and then Mayfield busts out “Do Do Wap Is Strong in Here”… seemingly backed by a full band.  It’s a bizarre moment, as the use of non-diegetic music is completely unexplained — I justified it by assuming he was singing along to an unseen radio — and it only seems to be in the movie to showcase the celebrity cameos.  But it’s a nice, energetic scene and I love the song, so I’m not complaining.

Besides Mayfield’s involvement (his music is otherwise mostly relegated to the opening and closing credits, or very faintly in the background), it’s an interesting work, though one with some problems.  You would think the plot would primarily revolve around Davison’s character, but that’s really only half (maybe even less) of the story.  He doesn’t even show up until well into the picture.  In the larger sense, it’s about the almost animalistic survival mechanisms of prison life (the movie is based on a successful play written in Sing-Sing by Miguel Pinero, who also has a small role).  Entirely unrelated to the Davison thread, for example, is an intense scene where Paco (Shawn Elliott) first tries to rape “Cupcakes” (Tito Goya), then seduce him, then intimidate him.  There are several other conflicts throughout the film, and one of the shortcomings is that many of these are shoved aside and forgotten… not by the characters, but by the film.

The camerawork is generally pretty good, using the ubiquitous bars to the expected effect and making the action claustrophobic to heighten the intensity.  And yet one of the most riveting scenes is a harrowing monologue by Davison, in a large open room with only Pérez as his audience.  It’s some of the best acting in a film where the performances are a mixed bag, and probably the best writing in a script that often tries too hard to achieve a streetwise eloquence (although many of the lines are extremely difficult to make out, and I sorely wish the DVD had included subtitles).

The movie never hits any tremendous highs, and it’s hard to say if the film’s climax is ethically complex or morally confused… but it has a gritty energy and momentum.  Despite the occasional staginess of it, it achieves a compelling level of verisimilitude, perhaps partly due to the use of the real prison location.  It wavers between just below average and just above average, but for the most part is the latter.  Oh, and keep an eye out for a young Luis Guzman rocking a major afro.  Rating: Good (76)


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