Stir (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Prisoners stage an uprising.

China Jackson (Bryan Brown) was a part of an earlier prisoner revolt and when he was released he became a media advocate informing the public about the rotten conditions of the South Australian prison system and the abusive tactics of those running it. When China returns to prison after committing another crime while on parole the guards make sure that life for him on the inside is made as miserable as possible to get back at him for what he said. Yet as stirrings inside the jailhouse begin to grow and fears of a violent uprising manifest, the guards begin working with China in an attempt to quell it, but even his efforts to calm things backfire leading to a massive revolt.

The screenplay was written by Bob Jewson, which as the epilogue states, was a prisoner inside the Bathurst Jailhouse in February, 1974 where rioting lead to the place being almost entirely destroyed. The story here touches on many of the elements that Jewson faced while incarcerated and several of the supporting cast members in this film were actual prisoners during that riot.

The film has an impressively gritty feel that far exceeds most other prison flicks. Similar to Fortune and Men’s Eyes the camera gets situated inside the cell instead of being placed outside of it and then looking in. The result gives the viewer the feeling of being locked into the cramped, dingy cell alongside the  prisoners leading to a claustrophobic and uneasy feeling, which lasts for the entire duration of the movie. When the guards burst into it for no apparent reason and begin riffling through the prisoners things and pushing them up against the wall you sense their tension and can relate to the ongoing stress that they must live with.

I also loved how when the riots break out the camera takes a point-of-view perspective by running along with the prisoners has they tear the place apart making you think that you’re one of them. Later, when the guards reclaim control, the camera again takes the point-of-view perspective this time making you feel like you’re being marched through the gauntlet as they take turns beating each prisoner with their rubber batons, which literally made me wince as I could imagine the same type of pain that they were going through.

The casting of Bryan Brown I initially didn’t like. He’s a good actor, but too well known of a face, even for back then, so it was hard for me to detach who he was from some of the other parts he has played though his increasingly intense performance does help. I did like that one of his front teeth appears decayed here and they left it that way for filming, which enhances the gritty quality versus doing the Hollywood treatment and having it capped. I did though have a problem with him getting shot in the back of his shoulder, but he continues to be able to move his arm easily without any apparent pain, which I surmised would’ve been doubtful.

Spoiler Alert!

While the film does have its slow, talky moments I did appreciate how we see things from both the prisoner’s and guard’s perspectives. Most other prison flicks like to paint the guards as being all bad, but here we’re made to understand their fear and how not all of them were on the same-page and at times even openly at odds with each other. The third act is where the violence explodes and it’s effective, but what I found most disturbing was the aftermath where the prisoners get rounded up and put into pens that were even smaller than the cells the they came from looking almost like animals herded into a cage and making their protest and anger, some of which was quite justified, seem futile and pointless as things just went right back to the way they were before.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: August 31, 1980

Runtime: 1 Hour 36 Minutes

Director: Stephen Wallace

Studio: New South Wales Film Corporation

Available: None at this time.

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