The wrongly accused man, the rebel that can’t be caged, and the prisoner of war trying to get out alive; there are so many types of relatable characters that exist in the “prison break” sub-genre.
At their best these movies play on our deepest psychological fears. The thought of being locked away in sub-human conditions, sadistic and malicious wardens and guards are often more criminal than the prisoners themselves. The fear that an innocent person could be locked away and never allowed to interact with society rests in the deepest recesses of our psyche.
The films below all find a different way to put the viewer in the cells with these men.
10. (3 way tie): Out of Sight / Ain’t Them Bodies Saints / Brother, Where Art Thou?
All three of these films are predicated on a prison break, but none of them are explicitly about the breaking out of prison. The escape is a plot device to introduce the view to the characters. We get to know what kind of men these are and how far they are willing to go for what they believe in.
Out of Sight (1998) – directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, based off a novel Elmore Novel, Clooney is a suave career criminal and Lopez is the US Marshall that gets taken captive during the escape. This is a sexy and funny cat and mouse story.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) – Directed by David Lowery
Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play young lovers that get mixed up with the law. Affleck covers for Mara and goes to prison. From there he thinks of nothing but his love while he waits for the perfect moment to escape. On the outside Mara has to move on. She matures and raises their child. Ben Foster has a great supporting performance in this beautifully shot meditation on early Terrence Malick films.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) – Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
This is a depression era, chain gang escape film that is heavily influenced by Homer’s The Odyssey. The Coen’s bring their signature sense of humor and an amazing soundtrack to this sepia saturated hayseed epic.
9. Midnight Express (1978) – Directed by Alan Parker
Based on a true story about an American college student that is caught trying to smuggle drugs out of Turkey. He agrees to help the authorities by telling them where he got the drugs, but then is caught trying to escape. From here he is subjected to torture and torment by a sadistic warden in a prison that is unfit for animals. Our protagonist is able to make friends with a couple of other inmates; it is this relationship that keeps him alive in a hopeless environment.