Short Eyes

Short Eyes

USA, 1977. Rated R. 104 minutes.

Cast: Bruce Davison, José Pérez, Nathan George, Shawn Elliott, Tito Goya, Joseph Carberry, Kenny Steward, Bob Maroff, Curtis Mayfield, Freddy Fender
Writer: Miguel Piñero, based on his play
Music: Curtis Mayfield
Cinematographer: Peter Sova
Producer: Lewis Harris
Director: Robert M. Young


Grade: B- Review by Dominic Varle

Within the loosely-defined prison film genre there is an autobiographical subset that is largely alone in depicting homosexuality, male rape, and sexual abuse with apparently uncompromising verisimilitude. Alongside Jean Genet's Un Chant D'Amour, John Herbert's Fortune and Men's Eyes and Ben Jewson's Australian film Stir, is Miguel Piñero's Short Eyes (1977), which has been reissued and is initially showing at New York's Quad cinema. Hailed on its release in 1977 by The New Yorker's Pauline Kael as "the most emotionally accurate--and so most frightening--movie about American prisons ever made," its overt themes of sexual terrorization and vigilante retribution are intensified as a result of being entirely filmed in the infamous Manhattan House of Detention, known as "The Tombs." But does Kael's judgment still hold true three decades on?

Piñero, the seminal Nuyorican writer whose uncompromising life was depicted in a 2001 film starring Benjamin Bratt, wrote the play from which Short Eyes is adapted while serving a two-year sentence in Sing Sing for drug and theft offences. The story foregoes more traditional "system versus inmates" storylines, concentrating on a system within the system, the hierarchic power struggles amongst inmates. It follows three in particular, Clark (Bruce Davison), Juan (Jose Perez) and his charge Julio (Tito Goya), whose fates converge and diverge over the course of a few brutal hours. In addition to casting professional actors, the ensemble also includes ex-convicts, ex-addicts, and street people, adding a further layer of authenticity. We need look no further than the anxiety on Julio's baby-face when the lascivious senior cons call him by his laconic nickname, "Cupcakes," for an early reflection of this.

Director Robert M. Young initially depicts some parity between the inmates by panning from cell to cell. They are indistinguishable from one another as they daydream on their bunks, play chess, and engage in institutional braggadocio. When congregating, however, there is a clearly delineated ethnic hierarchy. Economical expository dialog underscores a pecking order inverted from the world outside the jail: African Americans predominate, then Puerto Rican, and a poor third, white.

The only flat note in the film is sounded in the early group scenes. Curtis Mayfield (who also scored the film's music) and fellow musician Freddy Fender make cameo appearances as Inmates That Sing. While Fender sings a contextually credible a cappella ("Break It Down") as other inmates join in, Mayfield's turn, while soulful, is inexplicably backed by an unseen band, undermining the emotional impact of the scene with a Jailhouse Rock vibe. It's possible that this out-of-place interlude is an apt portent, as the song's end heralds the arrival of fish-out-of-water Clark. Bundled into the cellblock by the guards, he is immediately taken aside by Murphy (Joseph Carberry), the leader of the white bloc, sized up, wised up, and co-opted into the small group of white prisoners. But before Clark has calmed his nerves with the cigarette given to him by Murphy, he is outed by the guard as a "short eyes"--jail slang euphemism for a child molester.

No one is more despicable to inmates than a short eyes, and this triggers relentless verbal hounding by the inmates that swiftly becomes physical. Clark's disoriented terror as the inmates, including the teenage Julio/Cupcakes, attack him is skillfully captured by a camera adopting a first person perspective, moving in and out of the groups of inmates as though we are in their midst. The interplay between Davison and Goya in this melee is striking. Each makes moment-by-moment calculations about his immediate fate--Julio realizing that he has and must seize his opportunity to move up a rung in the hierarchy at Clark's expense; Clark resigning himself to a beating, the severity of which he dare not imagine, not knowing if he'll survive it, but wanting it to be over anyway.

There is some respite for Clark after the other inmates return to their cells. Having spent thirty days in psychiatric evaluation pending charges, he unburdens himself to Juan (Jose Perez), the leader of the Puerto Rican inmates and the only prisoner willing to talk to him, claiming that he does not remember whether he actually committed the molestation of which he is accused. There turns out to be no respite for Cupcakes however, who is sexually terrorized in the showers by the nefarious Paco (Shawn Elliott), under the passive but ominously titillated gaze of Omar (Kenny Steward). Julio fends off their advances, prompting the pent-up Paco to turn his attentions to Clark, spurred-on by Murphy and Omar. The judicious Juan is powerless to stop the other inmates, hell bent on sating themselves under the guise of meting out rough justice to Clark by giving him a dose of his own medicine.

Is this still the 'most frightening movie about American prisons ever made'? Yes, Short Eyes is frightening, although not for its depictions of violence, which are comparable to any episode of HBO's OZ, and are far less disturbing than scenes in Stir (1980). If, as Kael says, its capacity to frighten derives from its 'emotional accuracy,' then the contribution of Bruce Davison's performance, a flawless execution of a wholly unpalatable and unsympathetic role, should not be overlooked. Like Shakespeare's villain Iago (Othello), this role requires the actor to not only acknowledge that the diabolical nature of the character is there within himself, but also to show it. Davison does, and wretchedly so, but his performance is not the locus of the film.

A more germane comparison with the duplicitous Iago ("of exceeding honesty, [who] knows all qualities, with learned spirit of human dealings") is Juan, who has similarly cultivated an honest persona, but whose actions may be more disingenuous than they appear. Incredulous at Clark's inability to recall the offence for which he is incarcerated, Juan presses him to remember. Clark eventually admits to habitual child abuse, graphically revealing past incidents that went undetected and unpunished. Juan, appearing appalled, surprisingly makes no overt judgment of Clark, as if to say, "none of us here is fit to judge another."

Taken at face value, it's possible that Piñero is making a salutary point by depicting Juan's astonishing, incongruously saintly reaction in this scene (and thereafter in comparison to the other inmates) as a noble aspiration to a higher ideal of tolerance and understanding. While this may sate an audience's liberal conscience, this is prison, not cloud-cuckoo-land. Juan's reaction is not emotional accuracy, it is whimsy--unless we speculate that Juan is deceitfully engineering Clark's fate in order to protect Julio until he is bailed. Without this or a similar hypothesis, it is hard to agree with Kael's assessment of Short Eyes, which is--Davison's performance aside--barely more than a period curio.

Review © March 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1977/2003 Castle Hill Productions. All Rights Reserved.

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