The first day at a new job can be so awkward, you know? You don't know how to work your swivelly chair, and you have to eat lunch by yourself in the parking lot, and you can't find the bathroom but you feel weird asking because it seems too soon to bring up the excretory system seeing as you just met these people, and then your boss leaves you to "just get started on these invoices," even though you only kind of know what an invoice IS, let alone what to do with one, so you just play hearts for a few hours and hope no one fires you, and then, you know, maybe during your tour of the facilities you get hit with a homemade projectile whittled by a madman, so your boss has you lie down in an empty room to recuperate, but just then—when it rains it pours!—a deadly prison riot takes over the entire building and your boss runs off and leaves you for dead, so you have to impersonate a bloodthirsty murderer just to avoid getting shivved in the eyeball by a gang of violent but morally ambiguous Spaniards. Seriously. There are days and then there are days.
The above is what happens to Juan Oliver—a minty fresh prison guard on his first day of work—in Cell 211, a Spanish prison thriller so stressful it just might compress your brain into a diamond (most likely fatal. But hey! Free diamond!). Injured and stuck in the titular concrete hole at exactly the worst possible moment in hole history, Juan has to think fast—stripping himself of all civilian accoutrements, affecting a felonious scowl, and becoming BFFs with the riot's mastermind, a brutal, bearded armoire of a man named Malamadre.
I'm going to go out on an entirely subjective limb here and say that incarceration is literally the most interesting thing that humans do. And Cell 211 tells a terrific prison story. As Juan, determined to get out alive and go home to his pregnant wife, adapts to his new environs, his sympathies (and ours) shift in startling but wholly believable ways. Malamadre's cohort isn't rioting for the sake of bloodshed—they have demands: medical care, basic human rights, an end to solitary confinement ("You're even grateful when they come and beat on you," says one inmate). The further the film unravels and the worse things get for Juan (and things get very, very bad), the more the real villains of this monster movie make themselves known. They are, of course, the ones on the outside—the guards, the wardens, the government, whose crimes are doubly insidious because they masquerade as justice. It's a pretty heavy-handed point, and less nuanced than it needs to be, so if you must walk out of Cell 211 with a message, make it this: Sucks to be Juan. WORST FIRST DAY OF WORK EVER.