10 Great Prison Movies You May Have Never Seen

Starred Up

We love prison movies for many reasons. Sometimes it’s really for the escape part – we love to see the prisoners break, because we love to see the desire of freedom and how much they try to achieve it, even if they fail. We love that claustrophobic setting, characters that can’t escape anywhere and what happens or could happen in such settings.

There’s almost something mysterious about the whole environment for the majority of people. We often just want to know what’s going on in there. The stories use interesting and sometimes dangerous characters, highlighting good and evil in many ways. Whatever your reason, if you enjoy jail/prison movies, then hopefully you’ll find stuff to watch here that you’ve not seen before and you won’t regret watching.


10. Killer: A Journal of Murder (1995)

Carl Panzram was a horrible human being all-around; a serial killer, rapist, arsonist, robber, and burglar. He claims to have committed 22 murders, and more than 1,000 acts of sodomy on boys and men. There’s a very fine montage and somewhat cool editing work early in the film, which introduces us to his background a bit. He tried to escape several times, and was executed in 1930.

James Woods’ portrayal of Panzram in “Killer: A Journal of Murder” is chilling and enough of a reason to check out this drama. The movie takes place in the 1920s and mostly focuses on Panzram and a soft-spoken prison guard named Henry Lesser. Thanks to the performances, especially that from Woods, it is interesting to watch both men, and even when the script shows a weakness as a character study, the performances easily come over those weaknesses. The production design is also really good, giving you the feeling of the decade in which the movie is set.

The film is based on a 1970 book co-authored by Thomas E. Gaddis, who scripted the prison classic “Birdman of Alcatraz,” and James O. Long. Even though the actual case is far too complex to make into just 90 minutes of a movie, still “Killer” is a more intelligent film than you would expect it to be. Surely a film about Panzram’s psychology would make a better film, but still, the film’s exploration of two opposite men and their relationship is a compelling watch.


9. Animal Factory (2000)

Animal Factory

Steve Buscemi recently said in an interview that Willem Dafoe was his main idol in his career, because Dafoe is a rare case of an actor who has achieved equal success in blockbusters and in arthouse cinema. Here in this prison drama, he finally gets a chance to direct Dafoe in a pretty strong performance.

Based on the novel of the same title by Edward Bunker, the story follows a young guy named Ron Decker (Edward Furlong) getting convicted of drug possession, and there, Earl Copen (Dafoe) takes him under his wing. He teaches him the ropes and how to spot a threat. It is actually a little similar to Buscemi’s previous film “Trees Lounge” in the way that the characters also reveal themselves because basically they’ve nothing else to do. It’s not a prison drama about power or action.

Going for a more low-key approach, it prefers to be more character-driven movie and it becomes very watchable because all the characters are interesting and realistic, the dialogues are very well-written, and even though the movie belongs to the main performers, especially Dafoe’s brilliant performance, the movie is full of great names. Danny Trejo shows up in a role you’d expect, but it’s Mickey Rourke who has the most unusual supporting role. Even more surprising than Rourke is Tom Arnold as the rapist – and it’s probably his best performance? “Animal Factory” is such an intelligent effort that one would wish that Buscemi would direct movies more often.


8. King of Devil’s Island (2010)

In 1915 on a Norwegian island, boys who came from broken families or who committed crimes were brought up to be adapted adults using brutal methods. A new boy coming to the island resists the conditions and also causes others to rebel. It’s not necessarily an unpredictable storyline, but it seriously contains a lot of things that people love about prison movies; it’s about injustice, it’s about abuse, and it’s about rebellion against brutality. So there’s no doubt that it’d appeal to many fans of the genre; not to mention, it’s a film that is careful about its character development and the cast does the best to even elevate the material even further.

Stellan Saarsgard in particular leaves an impression but apart from the acting, the movie keeps you engaged by its settings, cinematography, and haunting musical score. There’s that chilling tone the director uses for the film that works really great. And while it works more as a character-driven film, the last act has more action than the rest of the film and it’s also handled well. The movie did well in its homeland but still is somewhat of an unknown film to the audiences outside of Norway and its neighboring states. For some general audiences, the film can be too cold or dreary, but for prison movie fans, it sure is a great watch.


7. Last Light (1993)

In the 1990s, Canadian actor Kiefer Sutherland decided to try out directing; he never necessarily succeeded in making an acclaimed film as a director, but his debut – the very lesser-known Showtime drama film “Last Light” – can be considered his most successful work. Even though it’s slightly heavy-handed at times, this prison drama about a transformative friendship between a violent prisoner waiting for his execution and a death row guard who refuses to get violent with prisoners is an effective drama, mostly because the acting is strong but also because the script brings us interesting characters and well-developed scenes.

It’s not just two-hander, though – the supporting characters are actually really good. Sutherland has a pretty strong scene with Amanda Plummer, who plays his sister. There’s also a great sequence between Forest Whitaker’s character and his wife, played by Lynne Moody. Sutherland has played a lot of dark characters and some villains as well, but there’s a twist in here.

While in “A Time to Kill” or “Eye for an Eye,” his characters were there to disturb the audiences; here he reveals different sides of his seemingly violent character. In those two movies, you’d never want to know him in real life but in “Last Light,” you want to know more about him. The climatic ending is also tense and impressive. Despite having two well-known actors in the lead roles, unfortunately “Last Light” is mostly an unknown effort.


6. Brubaker (1980)

The 1969 book “Accomplices to the Crime: The Arkansas Prison Scandal” by Tom Murton and Joe Hyams, detailing Murton’s uncovering of the 1967 prison scandal, is the basis of this Stuart Rosenberg-directed drama. Robert Redford plays an inmate just arriving at Wakefield State Prison in the late ‘60s and he witnesses murder, terrible food, sexual assault, torture, and so on. Then we learn that this inmate is actually a new prison warden; he let himself in to see the conditions, and now he plans a reform that is not going to be easy between corrupt authorities, politicians, and greedy entrepreneurs.

The characters are all well-written and Redford leads a strong ensemble here, and the issues taken to deal with are pretty complex ones. This is not necessarily a feel-good film, but that’s where its strength lies – it takes the issues as they are, shows that they’re not easy to change sometimes, but they have to change. Those who love to see lone warrior movies may be impressed by this, considering how stubborn and dedicated Redford’s character can be, and the movie is exciting to watch throughout. The cinematography is pretty nice, the editing could have been better, but in general, “Brubaker” is a film worth checking out.