A 21-year-old man (Edward Furlong) from an educated and well-to-do family is sent to prison for selling marijuana. While there he becomes hardened by the prison system as he deals with segregation, violence and the constant fear of being sexually molested. He is befriended by the “King of the Yard,” Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe), who expresses a true concern for the new inmate. They become like father and son as they live day-by-day in this wretched place they must now call home.
In the press notes, we are told that America has gone on a correctional “binge,” incarcerating a higher percentage of its population than in any other country. The film then proceeds to show us that life in prison is tortuous. It is a constant vigil to protect oneself from senseless brutality or sexual harassment. I suspect the novel the screenplay is taken from stresses the need for change in our correctional institutions. Not so in this film. It shows all the ugliness, but we learn nothing new.
Prison movies have a basic format even more contrite than the western. “Innocent” goes to prison, is harassed by bully, befriended by prison-wise fellow inmate, guards turn the other way while nefarious deeds are committed, and, eventually, after doing something stupid and increasing his sentence, the lead makes a daring escape. Some films have brought a strong message to the public about prison life, including “The Birdman of Alcatraz,” “Brubaker,” and “The Shawshank Redemption,” but this film fails to live up to those well-made screen efforts.
The prison world is a soulless community where the inmates are subjected to horrendous food, a bleak future, and a day-to-day struggle to survive. Do we really need another film containing the depiction of every depravity imaginable, not to mention racial strife and over 100 objectionable words for people to get this message? As for the press notes’ comment about the number of incarcerations, what is being suggested here? Are we to turn our backs on crime because other countries do? I agree that changes should be made so that inmates are not treated like animals, but this film never suggests an answer. It doesn’t even raise a question.