The grim prison melodrama Short Eyes teems with authentic behavior and dialogue, and with good reason: Writer Miguel Piñero adapted the script from his own award-winning play, which was in turn extrapolated from a turbulent youth spent in and out of jail. Short Eyes depicts the tumult that arises in a men’s lockup when the prisoners discover a new inmate is a pedophile. As directed by Robert M. Young, a socially conscious filmmaker whose fictional work reflects his background in documentaries, Short Eyes is a gritty travelogue through the complex social dynamics formed by prisoners, and the picture is infused with gruesome textures. So even though the piece features passages of men bonding through pastimes like music and cockroach races, there’s no risk of glamorizing the prison experience.
Quite to the contrary, Piñero and Young present a horrifying milieu in which danger is omnipresent, the exchange of sexual favors for protection is an everyday reality, and racial divisions are so regimented that there’s a table in the day room for the blacks, one for the Puerto Ricans, and one for the whites, who in this environment are the oppressed minority. There’s also a harshly enforced caste system, with pedophiles at the very bottom, meaning they’re fair game for abuse and violence.
Piñero introduces several vivid characters, from the speechifying black revolutionary whose boasts eclipse his desire for real violence, to the hot-tempered Puerto Rican drug addict forever angling to make the prison’s youngest inmate his sexual plaything. At the center of the story is Juan (Jósé Pérez), a thoughtful con who adheres to the prison’s class divisions but uses diplomacy to defuse pointless conflicts. So when child-molester Clark Davis (Bruce Davison) arrives in the cellblock, Juan tries to understand Clark instead of leaping to judgment. In the picture’s most harrowing scene, Clark unloads his secret history, describing in excruciating detail how he finds his victims. Juan’s reaction to Clark’s purging is a complex mixture of anger, bewilderment, compassion, disgust, and rage, so it’s painful to watch prison’s hive-mind distill its collective response into a brutal form of vigilante justice.
Although Short Eyes is undoubtedly amped up for dramatic effect, as seen in the prisoners’ tendencies toward revelatory encounter-group dialogue exchanges, the picture is fascinating and nauseating at the same time. The whole cast is strong, with Davison going deep into the abyss of his tortured character and Pérez providing a strong thread of anguished humanity. Future indie-cinema fave Luis Guzmán appears in a tiny role, and singers Freddie Fender and Curtis Mayfield (who also did the score) show up as inmates; each performs a tune in the day room.
Short Eyes: GROOVY