Indie prison flicks are breakout trend

Allegory for powerlessness or just exploitation?

With boxoffice for indie films taking a nose dive and new Cannes market titles seen as tough to market, many North American buyers feel like they're in a kind of prison, living day to day with little hope, their spirits beaten down again and again.

Perhaps it's because so many of the films they've been seeing lately have characters going to prison, in prison or just out of prison. At a time when distributors are desperately seeking upbeat indie fare after many dark dramas and Iraq War films have failed, what could be bleaker?

Cannes alone featured more than 10 films on the subject, including "Lion's Den," about Argentinean women raising their toddlers in jail; "My Life Inside," a docu about a Mexican woman imprisoned in Texas; and "Wendy and Lucy," in which Michelle Williams gets arrested for shoplifting dog food. None of these women-in-prison films, however, carries the commercial genre appeal of, say, a tormented Linda Blair in "Born Innocent" or one of Jonathan Demme's proudest moments, the women's prison riot flick "Caged Heat."

Men behind bars can now be found in abundance. In James Toback's docu "Tyson," the heavyweight champ recalls fellow inmates throwing "fecal matter" at guards. Adding to the fun, "Four Nights With Anna" centers on a man released from prison for a rape he didn't commit — only to be arrested for another rape he didn't commit.

Although most buyers have shied away from the subject matter, IFC Films fearlessly has taken the plunge in Cannes, picking up U.S. rights to the intense IRA prison hunger strike drama "Hunger." Defamer's S.T. VanAirsdale thinks there might even be a market for such films. "Millions of Americans have been to prison," he said. "It's kind of nostalgic."

And a few filmmakers are taking a more accessible, lighthearted approach to incarceration. On the heels of the comedies "Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay" and "Let's Go to Prison," Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor will soon be seen as amorous cellmates in "I Love You Phillip Morris."

So what is it about prison that's creating a flood in the theatrical pipeline?

"Filmmakers always position themselves as the underdog," Movie City News columnist Ray Pride said. "If you're confined in a prison cell, what more apt allegory for being powerless is there?"

Dustin Smith, a film scholar and director of acquisitions at Roadside Attractions, has another take. "I'd like to think that it's a collective, worldwide yearning to break free of the constrictive and terrifying times in which we've all been living the past few years," he said. "But my guess is that it's more just an artistically acceptable way to film poop, nudity and chicks fighting." (partialdiff)