Prison is a setting that, for many, is unfamiliar and daunting, the claustrophobic nature of a prison means that character traits and behaviors, relationships, and experiences are amplified. This, of course, can make for exhilarating cinema. Some of the greatest movies of all time have been set in prisons. They have been used as key settings in movies dating right back to some of the earliest examples of cinema moving on through to movies like The Count of Monte Cristo (1934) and Elvis Presley’s movie Jailhouse Rock (1957).
Following a slight dip in popularity, the success of the TV series Prison Break in the mid-00s reignited the public’s interest in the setting. Since then, there’s been a plethora of TV shows and movies set in prisons including Orange is the New Black, Get Hardand Sylvester Stallone’s Escape Plan movies. Below is a list of 10 of the greatest movies that are set in prisons, ranked.
10 The Longest Yard (1974)
A very rare example of a prison comedy that actually manages to work, The Longest Yard is about a former NFL player who goes about recruiting a group of prisoners to play a football match against their guards. Led by the outrageously charismatic Burt Reynolds and featuring numerous professional footballers of the time including Green Bay Packers legend Ray Nitschke, it manages to deliver plenty of action and drama whilst never taking itself entirely too seriously. The film was given a gritty makeover and remade as Mean Machine with a British cast including Vinnie Jones, Jason Statham, and Danny Dyer, where (naturally) football was swapped for ‘soccer’ and given a slightly grittier edge. It was also famously remade with Adam Sandler in 2005. Despite both movies performing well with their target audiences, they are both considered wildly inferior to the 1974 original.
9 Animal Factory
Well known as a fine character actor who has made countless movies and television appearances, Steve Buscemi’s directing credits are far less extensive. Each time he does step behind the camera, results are normally impressive. That can certainly be said for his neo-noir prison outing in 2000 Animal Factory. This gritty prison drama sees Edward Furlong playing a spoiled suburban teenager who unexpectedly finds himself serving time in San Quentin prison, ultimately having to adapt to the dangers that surround him in order to survive. Boosted by a fantastic supporting cast including Willem Dafoe, Mickey Rourke, Tom Arnold, and Danny Trejo, this is definitely a hidden gem worth checking out.
8 The experiment
Loosely based on Philip Zimbardo’s notorious Stamford Prison Experiment of 1971, this German prison thriller focuses on participants’ reactions and behaviors when put in a simulation of a prison environment. Serving as a gut-wrenching eye-opener into the reality of human nature, The experiment touches on themes of abuse of power, ethics in science, and survival of the fittest. The movie is expertly crafted and is thoroughly engaging throughout; however, for those who do not speak German and might be slightly put off by subtitles or dubbing, there is a solid American remake starring Adrien Brody and Forrest Whitaker.
7 Brawl in Cell Block 99
This small independent prison thriller caught a lot of people’s attention for Vince Vaughn’s against-type portrayal of brutal prison inmate Bradley Thomas. Known for his light-hearted comedy roles and typically playing the lovable dope with a heart of gold, Vaughn embraced his imposing stature and shaved his head in this utterly convincing powerful performance, which garnered critical praise across the board. This white-knuckle thrill ride is great for fans of the old grindhouse, exploitation-style cinema that yearn for new additions to their list of ‘go to’ movies.
6 American History X
American History X is a tough but rewarding watch. Featuring deeply unsettling subject matter and graphic violence, Edward Norton and Edward Furlong star as two brothers heavily involved in the local white power skinhead and neo-Nazi movements. Admittedly, it’s not entirely set in a prison, but there the prison parts play such an important role in the story, it seems appropriate to feature it on this list. Norton’s character is sent to prison for a brutal attack on a man of color, and it is there that he begins to question everything he once believed and felt so passionately about. Both actors put on sterling, scarily believable performances, and the script takes viewers on an emotional rollercoaster, leaving them never quite knowing what to expect. It is certainly a movie that will linger in your minds long after the final credits have rolled.
5 The Great Escape
Differing slightly from other entries on this list, The Great Escape is not about prisoners incarcerated as a result of a judicial system, but instead focuses on prisoners of war and the prison they are forced to reside in. Loosely based on a real-life mass escape by British Commonwealth prisoners of war from a WW2 German POW camp, The Great Escape is an epic adventure movie that revolves heavily on the cast of characters we’re introduced to. Fortunately, this eclectic cast of characters is portrayed by some of the biggest and best names in movie history, including Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, and Charles Bronson. Featuring some of cinema’s most iconic scenes, the movie has forged a legacy that stands strong to this day, nearly 60 years later, with references, homages, and spoofs still remaining commonplace in popular culture.
4 The Green Mile
Set during The Great Depression, The Green Mile is about the supernatural events surrounding a new prisoner on death row (Michael Clarke Duncan) and his relationship with a prison guard (Tom Hanks). The movie is a masterclass in acting with Tom Hanks delivering a pitch-perfect performance as expected and Michael Clarke Duncan delivering a fantastically nuanced performance as the physically imposing, but soft and gentle John Coffey. Given the utterly depressing topic, The Green Mile manages to offer just as much hope and joy as it does sadness and despair. A riveting piece of storytelling with some supernatural elements thrown in to add to the intrigue in a movie that hits all the right notes whilst pulling at those heart strings.
3 Cool Hand Luke
Paul Newman (for which he was nominated for an Oscar) and Paul Kennedy’s (for which he won an Oscar) performances have gone down in history as being amongst the greatest of all time and cemented the pair as two of the most reliable and solid performers of the era. Newman exudes charisma as the rebellious prisoner perfectly capturing the Zeitgeist of late 60s America. When anyone mentions great prison movies it is nigh impossible to not think of Cool Hand Luke.
2 Midnight Express
Gritty prison drama Midnight Express is based on the real-life harrowing experience of American student Billy Hayes, and the time he spent in a Turkish prison after trying to smuggle drugs out of the country, as detailed in his book of the same name. Oliver Stone magnificently brought the story to life in all its squalid glory with his Oscar-winning screenplay. The movie is a raw and unrelenting depiction of life behind bars boosted by its strong cast, Oscar-winning score, and fine direction.
1 The Shawshank Redemption
Before The Green MileFrank Darabont directed The Shawshank Redemption. It is widely regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made, but believe it or not, during its initial theatrical release, it was an utter box office disappointment, earning a mere $ 16 million. Over time, the movie has gone on to earn the respect it deserves, with it being selected by the United States Library for preservation in the National Film Registry, which deemed it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. The story follows the developing friendship between two inmates, earnestly portrayed by Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman in career defining performances. A layered and emotional rollercoaster, watching The Shawshank Redemption is one of the most rewarding viewing experiences one can expect to have.
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