Film Review: Short Eyes (dir by Robert M. Young)

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.

Film Review: Extremities (dir by Robert M. Young)

The 1986 film, Extremities, begins with a woman named Marjorie (Farrah Fawcett) getting into her car and getting attacked by a masked rapist named Joe (James Russo).  Though Marjorie manages to escape, Joe grabs her purse.  Later, we watch as Marjorie gets no help from the police while Joe goes home to his loving family.

One week later, Marjorie is alone at her house when Joe lets himself inside.  At first, Joe pretends that he just needs to use the phone.  When Marjorie lies that her husband is taking a nap upstairs, Joe starts to call for him to come downstairs.  As Joe reveals, he’s been stalking Marjorie for days.  He knows that she’s not married and he knows that her roommates will not be home for a few hours.

However, what Joe doesn’t know is that Marjorie has a can of bug spray and, as soon as Joe lets his guard down, she sprays it in his eyes and his mouth.  When the stunned and temporarily blinded Joe stumbles back, Marjorie pushes him into the fireplace and ties him up.  Realizing that he may have ingested toxic chemicals, Joe begs to be released but Marjorie has other plans….

And I was all for it!  I was really looking forward to watching Marjorie torment her attacker.  Unfortunately, Marjorie’s two roommate show up before Marjorie can really get started.  Terry (Diana Scarwid) is shocked when Marjorie explains that she’s planning on burying Joe alive but, as a rape survivor, Terry also knows that, even after all of this, the police will still not be of any help.  Meanwhile, Pat (Alfre Woodard) is a social worker, which means that she has to be the tedious voice of moderation.  She’s the one who says that they can’t kill Joe and that Joe might not even actually be the man who attacked Marjorie….

And that, right there, is one of the main problems with Extremities.  We spend a lot of time listening to Pat argue that it’s not right to torture anyone and that Marjorie might be mistaken and maybe Joe really was just some innocent guy who needed to use the phone.  However, we know that Marjorie’s right, Pat’s wrong, and Joe’s the attack.  As a result, it’s impossible not to get annoyed when Pat keeps going on and on.  We know exactly who Joe is and what we want is to see Marjorie get both justice and her revenge.  We want to see Joe suffer.  What we don’t want to do is spend 30 minutes listening to two thinly drawn characters debate the ethics of what Marjorie’s doing.  Perhaps if the film had begun with Pat and Terry coming home and discovering Joe already trapped in the fireplace, Pat’s concerns would have carried more weight.  There would have been a hint of ambiguity and we’d have to decide if we believed the word of the obviously traumatized Marjorie or the obviously desperate Joe.   But we already know that Marjorie’s right about who Joe is so who cares what Pat thinks?

If you didn’t already know that Extremities was based on a stage play, you’d be able to guess it after watching the movie.  With the exception of the film’s opening scenes, Extremities plays out in one location and, as a result, the film feels very stage-bound.  While the late Farrash Fawcett gives a brave and emotionally raw performance as Marjorie, Alfre Woodard, Diana Scarwid, and James Russo all give overly mannered performances that add to the film’s staginess.

In both its visual aesthetic and its cultural outlook, Extremities is very much a film of its time.  With the exception of Fawcett’s harrowing performance, Extremities feels like a relic of the past.  If the film were made today, there’d be no question that Joe would end up dying in that fireplace.  The only suspense would  be rather Pat or Terry would be the one to dig the grave.