Last night, fully intent on just viewing one movie before going to bed, I decided to watch the 1977 film, Short Eyes.
Why I thought that was a good idea, I’m not sure. Even though I didn’t know much about the film, I did know that it was a gritty prison drama that was written by an ex-con, filmed in an actual New York prison, and that a few prisoners appeared in small roles in the film. So, I really can’t claim that I didn’t realize that I was about to watch something that probably wasn’t going to be deal with particularly pleasant subject matter. I think my main reason for watching it, to be honest, was just that it had been sitting there on my Prime watchlist for nearly a year. My main motivation can be summed up as “If not now, when?” Of course, if I had know that “Short Eyes’ was apparently prison slang for someone who is a pedophile, I might have thought twice about watching.
The Short Eyes of the title is Clark Davis (Bruce Davison), a young man from a vaguely wealthy background who is being held on charges of raping a young girl. Clark is one of only three white men being housed in his cell block. As Clark soon discovers, everything in prison is determined by your race and what you’re accused of doing. As a white man, he’s already in the minority and, because he’s a “short eyes,” he soon discovers that not even the other whites are willing to watch his back. The only person who is vaguely sympathetic to Clark is Juan (Jose Perez), a longtime prisoner who is determined to not allow prison to turn him into an animal. Juan tells Clark that he needs to get a transfer to protective custody but it soon becomes apparent that’s not going to happen. The prison guards feel no obligation to protect Clark and Clark himself almost seems to have a death wish.
As Clark explains to Juan, he’s not sure whether he’s guilty or not. He says that he blacks out and sometimes, he’s not sure what he did. Clark thinks he’s innocent but, at the same time, he also confessed to Juan that he has molested other girls. Juan knows that Clark’s a dead man if he doesn’t get out of prison but he also know that, even if Clark is innocent this time, he won’t be in the future. When the other prisoners decide to kill Clark, Juan has to decide whether to let it happen or to risk his safety by trying to stop it.
Short Eyes is one of the most thoroughly unpleasant films that I’ve ever watched but that obviously was the point. This is a film about the reality of prison, that it’s a dirty, brutal, and inhumane place where the weak are targeted and anyone who goes against the system — whether it’s the system enforced by the guards or the even more important system created by the prisoners — will be punished. It’s not at all fun to watch but, if anyone wants to know why incarceration tends to just create hardened criminals as opposed to rehabilitating them, they should find some answers in the film’s portrait of prison life.
The film is based on a play and, in many scenes, it’s a bit too theatrical for its own good. Clark delivers a lengthy monologue about his previous actions and, while it’s well-delivered by Davison, it also goes on and on and you never quite understand why he’s opening up to Juan in the first place. (Juan, himself, angrily responds that he never asked to be Clark’s father confessor.) The scenes of the prisoners just hanging out and talking are also well-acted but again, they tend to drag on for a bit too long. Musicians Curtis Mayfield and Freddy Fender both appear as anonymous prisoners and both sing songs, which brings the film’s already uneven narrative momentum to a complete halt. Just as the inmates will never be able to escape prison, the film never escapes its theatrical origins. While the decision to film Short Eyes in an actual operating prison brings a good deal of authenticity to the production, the production’s staginess ultimately works against it.
At its best, this is a well-acted portrait of people trapped in a man-made Hell. Jose Perez gives an excellent performance and Bruce Davison will make your skin crawl as Clark, a character about whom most viewers will have very mixed feelings. Nathan George and Joseph Carberry are both properly intimidating as the heads of, respectively, the black prisoners and the whites.
This is definitely not a film to watch late at night, unless you’re actively trying to generate nightmares. (Of course, if that’s your goal, have it!) As for me, I stayed up an extra two and a half hours just so I could watch another movie after Short Eyes. As a result, I spent all of Saturday tired but I still think I made the right decision.