Adaptation of Miguel Pinero’s 1974 play.
Release Date: 20 July 1979 (Norway)
Director: 20 July 1979 (Norway)
Writer: Miguel Pinero
Cast: Bruce Davison, José Pérez, Nathan George
Adapted from a 1974 play by the writer Miguel Pinero, Short Eyes is the story of a man who is convicted of child molestation and sent to prison, where he finds that his fellow inmates judge him much more harshly than the legal system. “Short eyes” is a prison term for a paedophile and while every other crime is tolerated by the inmates, this one is not. Clark Davis, the “Short eyes” of the title is repeatedly humiliated and emasculated, violently bullied and eventually has his throat cut, just before it is announced that he is in fact innocent of the crime.
Robert M. Young’s direction is journalistic and revealing, designed to let the actors performances and the strength of the script shine through without embroidery. The sense of realism is enhanced by the fact that many of the extras and in the movie were genuine inmates who were serving minimum-security sentences. The film was also shot in a genuine prison, dating from the 19th century which was closed at the time of production. The issue of racial tension is treated with uncompromising harshness as the white population of the prison is hugely outnumbered and sometimes victimised.
As Clark Davis, Bruce Davison gives an astonishing performance which evokes sympathy as well as disgust and horror at his previous actions. He is out of his depth and conflicted, unable to adjust to his new environment and equally unable to defend himself from his abusers. Joseph Carberry plays the main white inmate and gives a performance that leaves us in no doubt that he is motivated by hate and ingrained mistrust and Pinero himself plays GoGo. Also exceptional is Jose Perez, as a trusty who has a brilliant scene with Clark, questioning him about the offence though the terminally confused Clark cannot remember whether he committed it or not, setting up the end of the movie.
And there are cameos from Curtis Mayfield who also wrote the score and Freddy Fender, both bringing their musical talents to the film in a breathtaking scene where they calm the swell of aggression with music.
“Short eyes” is a hard film to watch, involving you in such a way that it feels like you are actually in prison with the brutal inmates, no doubt because Pinero wrote the original play from first hand experience having himself been imprisoned for five years. It’s not an altogether pleasing viewing experience but it is nevertheless very rewarding and educational, showing that the deficiencies in the prison system are still as relevant over thirty years later.