The prison genre is an interesting one. A prison movie can be a political statement about the unsustainable prison system, a story about tensions between gangs, a character study that uses imprisonment as an emotional theme – there are all kinds of prison dramas. Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption, adapted from the Stephen King short story “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” is the gold standard for prison movies.
In fact, according to IMDb’s ranking, it’s the gold standard for cinema as a whole. But it’s not the only great prison movie out there. Here are 10 Prison Dramas To Watch If You Like The Shawshank Redemption.
10 Starred Up
Before directing Chris Pine in the acclaimed neo-western Hell or High Water, David Mackenzie directed Jack O’Connell in the acclaimed prison drama Starred Up. Screenwriter Jonathan Asser based the script on his experiences as a voluntary therapist at a Category B men’s prison in South West London, working with some of Britain’s most dangerous criminals to get to the root of what makes them tick and help them open up emotionally. This formed the basis of the lead character, Eric, a 19-year-old kid caught up in the wrong crowd who is moved from a juvenile prison to an adult prison, thanks to his violent tendencies.
9 Escape from Alcatraz
Alcatraz, the now-defunct island prison off the coast of San Francisco, is one of the most famous prisons in the world. Escape from Alcatraz stars Clint Eastwood as a prisoner on the island who hatches an elaborate plan to break out. It’s a dramatization of the 1962 escape of a prisoner from the maximum-security jail, although the script is highly fictionalized. It has a faster pace than most prison movies, and by the third act, it’s an all-out thrill-ride. The film was directed by Don Siegel, who helmed some of Eastwood’s most iconic action thrillers, including Dirty Harry and Coogan’s Bluff.
8 Find Me Guilty
Before the Fast & Furious franchise would go on to define Vin Diesel’s career, he proved his acting chops beyond growling about family in Sidney Lumet’s Find Me Guilty. It’s the true story of a gangster who got caught in a shooting incident and was sentenced to 30 years in jail. In the ensuing court case, he insisted on representing himself, much to the ire of the judge, the jury, and the legal team working for the crime family. Since he refuses to testify against anyone, the trial ends up lasting for 21 months, making it the longest federal trial in history.
7 Brute Force
Released back in the 40s and directed by The Naked City’s visionary director Jules Dassin, Brute Force tells the story of a rebellious prisoner, played by Burt Lancaster, who takes on the strict leader of the prison guards, played by Hume Cronyn. The movie has a lot of sociopolitical commentary about the prison system. It doesn’t have a black-and-white view of the prisoners and the guards (although it was shot in black-and-white), showing evil on both sides of the system. With these themes, and its stark lighting and shooting style, Brute Force is also a classic example of the film noir.
6 Brawl in Cell Block 99
Directed by S. Craig Zahler, whose films are an even more brutally violent and even more grindhouse-inspired alternative to Tarantino’s, Brawl in Cell Block 99 stars a jacked-up Vince Vaughn as an ex-criminal who goes back into his old business when he struggles to find legitimate work. He gets caught in a police shootout with a couple of partners-in-crime that he doesn’t trust, and ends up getting sentenced to a few years in prison. He’ll be in jail for the first few years of his baby’s life, which seems like the worst that can happen to him. But then it gets much worse, as a crime syndicate kidnaps his girlfriend and forces him to do jobs for them on the inside.
5 The Green Mile
The Shawshank Redemption isn’t the only prison-based Stephen King story that Frank Darabont adapted for the big screen; he also helmed The Green Mile. While The Shawshank Redemption was based on a short story, The Green Mile was based on a novel so thick that it could hold a door open, so it has a much denser plot and it’s much longer (clocking in at more than three hours). But with Michael Clarke Duncan and Tom Hanks shining as the central duo – a Christ figure on death row and the prison guard whose urinary problem he miraculously cures, respectively – it never gets boring.
The greatest strength of this biopic of prisoner Michael Peterson, who went by the alias “Charles Bronson,” is Tom Hardy’s performance in the lead role. Considered to be Britain’s most violent criminal, Bronson was prone to brutal outbursts, which regularly landed him in solitary confinement, leading to emotional issues later in life.
It was a star-making turn, and despite the fact that the movie was small and little-seen, it caught the attention of Hollywood and catapulted Hardy to stardom. Before too long, he was one of Christopher Nolan’s most frequent collaborators and he was taking the Mad Max franchise from Mel Gibson.
3 Midnight Express
Directed by Alan Parker and written by infamous political filmmaker Oliver Stone (who won an Oscar for his work on the film), Midnight Express is the story of a young American student who is arrested while trying to smuggle hash out of Turkey and locked in a Turkish prison. The film was based on the true story of Billy Hayes, who is played by Brad Davis here. The movie was so controversial for its portrayal of the Turkish prison system that years later, when Stone visited Turkey, he apologized to the Turkish people for how he depicted them in Midnight Express.
2 American History X
Edward Norton and Terminator 2’s Edward Furlong star as two brothers swept up in the white supremacist movement in American History X. Norton plays the older brother, who serves three years in prison, where he changes his ways. When he’s released from jail, he no longer believes in the tenets of the neo-Nazi movement, and he wants to get his younger brother out, too.
But changing his younger brother’s ideological beliefs turns out to be a lot harder than he hoped it would be. With a non-linear narrative, and shot on black-and-white film, American History X is a hard-hitting drama with an unconventional feel of its own.
1 Cool Hand Luke
The perfect pairing of hero and villain – a roguish charmer (Paul Newman, stealing the show with his iconic smirk) who just wants to have a good time and gets caught on the wrong side of the law, and a no-nonsense prison guard (Strother Martin) who wants to break his prisoners’ spirits – makes Cool Hand Luke a masterpiece. Cool Hand Luke has a strong comment to make on the state of the prison system in certain corners of the United States, and it makes that comment through a character-focused clash of ideologies. It’s famous for one quote, but it’s so much more than that.
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