A hidden gem from the late 70s, this superbly acted, well-shot, and sensitively written film is a must-see for anybody who believes they can stomach it. With a cast of mostly quasi-knowns, the low-budget Short Eyes is a remarkable slice of prison life, coming directly from a man who lived it (and who wrote and performed the play during his term).
While it's undoubtedly brutal (one of the most brutal you'll likely see), there is actually relatively little violence compared to, say, a gangster movie, or a Coen brother's picture, with there being true bloodshed only at the very end in this case. At the same time, the mood feels darker (and more desperate) than other films that positively drip with blood, because the motives behind the violence feel so human and real. The violence is senseless, but from watching the characters develop and interact you can understand what has led up to this violence, and this need the prisoners have to seize power in a powerless situation.
In Short Eyes Bruce Davison plays a meek white prisoner, husband and father, with a strong history of molesting children. Davison plays him beautifully in a way that makes you half want to hug him, half want to punch him. This is because Clark literally cannot help himself from being the way he is, and yet, as he says, his fear of losing everything that anchors him in life keeps him from preventing further violations against little girls. He isn't excused from what he's done, and yet you could understand how many people in his circumstances would do what he did. This is uncommonly good writing for a low budget '70s prison drama.
The character of Juan, played by Jose Perez (a seasoned character actor in and out of television but otherwise not known very well), is also excellent as a reluctant go-to for Clark, a comparatively down-to-earth prisoner, who is also able to hold his own in a one-on-one. The entire scene in which Clark opens up to Juan should have been enough to earn both of them at least nominations for Oscars; Clark and his sort of fascination with his own past actions, his unconcealed self-loathing. He's then played off nicely by Juan, a sick fury clearly building up inside him all the time he's listening, but carefully held back because of his desire to protect this man from the other prisoners. It is a very moving scene that you hold your breath through the entire time, like a horrific car crash that you can't look away from.
Short Eyes is also one of the better play-to-screen adaptations I've seen- although I don't doubt that much of the dialouge isn't altered, it all translates well for this film, the direction of the photography understated and wise. Nor is there much chewing of the scenery by the actors, the sort of acting trend a movie with a premise like this might attract. All of the performances are so natural and sharp you would believe them to be of real people, pulled out of a New York '70s detention center to play their parts for a quick dollar.
The film does fall victim to a few 70s cliches- the very "hip" score, for one, or the dancing scene around the beginning of the film or the passing transvestites who seemed to have little to do with the plot at all. But these products of the era are never applied so thickly that it makes you cringe to watch, and they do help you get a feel for the environment and time the play was written (the early '70s as opposed to late, as it were).
All in all, I'm of the opinion that it's a crime (no pun intended) that this movie is as unknown as it is. Because even with its highly unpleasant subect matter, again I say that the underlying causes of the unpleasantness are meaningful and real. Short Eyes is available on youtube in full, and I would highly recommend it to you even if you aren't a fan of Miguel Pinero, the genre, or prison films. Peace.