×

Film Review: ‘Solitary’

Kristi Jacobson takes audiences inside Red Onion State Prison, revealing what life is like for some of Virginia's worst offenders.

There’s little hope, but considerable insight, found in “Solitary,” Kristi Jacobson’s documentary about Wise County, Virginia’s Red Onion State Prison, a supermax facility where convicts are holed up for 23 hours a day in separate 8′-by-10′ cells. Shot over the course of a year, the film presents an unfiltered insider’s view of their colorless day-to-days, which are largely spent trying to stave off madness. Although its perspective is a tad too unbalanced, this unflinching look at inmate isolation will — after its premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival — prove yet another sturdy addition to HBO’s nonfiction slate.

Jacobson utilizes a sparse score for glimpses of her setting’s surrounding rural landscape: a gray, misty locale where the closing of local coal mines motivated many to embrace employment at the penitentiary. The majority of “Solitary,” however, is awash in the unholy din of Red Onion, where inmates scream, wail, howl and bang about in endless expressions of fury and frustration. That cacophony does much to situate viewers in this particular, inhospitable space and is complemented by visual compositions that highlight the fences, bars, frosted windows, and blue steel doors that keep its occupants confined.

Intermittent text cards state that over 100,000 American inmates exist in solitary, and in Virginia, they get there by violating general-population prison rules (generally, for fighting or trying to escape). The length of their Red Onion residences are determined by their ability to behave and complete a re-acclimating Step-Down program.

Yet as Jacobson’s interviewees claim, their stays are in fact indefinite, and regulated by dictates that seem blind to their efforts to toe the line (for example, attempted escapees have no chance for leaving solitary). Solace, if attainable, comes in the form of television programs and outside-the-cell jobs, or via retreats into their own minds, where they can imagine a reality far freer than their own.

“Solitary” concentrates on a handful of Red Onion’s inhabitants, all of them locked away for serious crimes and resigned to spending the rest of their lives behind bars. They are, by and large, well-spoken and introspective, the latter born from the fact that their time is mostly spent by themselves, with only minimal contact with guards — and chats with other inmates through cells’ air vents — to mitigate their crushing seclusion.

When Randall, who’s serving two life sentences for murdering a gas-station attendant during a robbery, states that solitary “gets to you, and it hurts like hell,” he speaks for everyone in Red Onion, whose system primarily breeds rage, loneliness, and psychological issues verging on outright insanity.

Like Randall, abandoned by his parents to the foster system and his own criminal inclinations, head-tattooed Michael recounts his own upbringing enthralled by California gang culture. Their tales of childhood woe suggest that nurture had a lot to do with their present situations. However, the matter-of-fact way in which Randall describes slitting a fellow inmate’s throat “from ear to ear” in order to avoid being potentially raped — as well as the attempts by Michael and burly Dennis to downplay their armed-robbery crimes (and subsequent in-prison face-slashings and fights) — underlines the fact that, no matter their corrupting upbringings, they’re now terrifyingly volatile, violence-prone individuals.

Jacobson makes no overt gestures of sympathy toward her subjects, though in their monotonous routines, and in their articulations of exasperation over their limited chances for reprieve, her film implicitly argues that solitary confinement begets only suicidal thoughts and/or uncontrollable anger. When Michael admits that he sometimes welcomes a physical altercation with guards — and when young corrections officer Jordan confesses likewise, saying the feelings those skirmishes inspire are akin to scoring a touchdown or hitting a home run — “Solitary” pinpoints how institutions such as Red Onion cultivate physical and emotional brutality in everyone who steps through its gates.

By not plumbing the rest of her interviewees’ backstories, or the warden and correctional officers’ lives, “Solitary” fails to present a more comprehensive cross-section of the dynamics at play at Red Onion. Still, refusing to shy away from harsh truths about both these inmates’ crimes, as well as their “caged animal” conditions, the film offers a complicated portrait of 21st-century crime and punishment — one in which the question of whether solitary confinement is unnecessarily and unproductively punitive, or a just penalty for extreme offenders, is left for the viewer to decide.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Solitary'

Reviewed at HBO Screening Room, New York, April 12, 2016. Running time: 80 MIN.  

Production: (Documentary) An HBO Documentary Films presentation of a Catalyst Films,Motto Pictures production, in co-production with WDR, SWR, in association with Arte, in co-production with Vital Projects Fund, in association with Blue Ice Fact Fund and Sutor Kolonko. Produced by Julie Goldman, Kristi Jacobson, Katie Mitchell. Executive producers, David Menschel, Sheila Nevins. Senior producer, Nancy Abraham. Co-producer, Ingmar Trost. Co-executive producers, Steven Silber, Neil Tabatznik, Robin Smith.

Crew: Directed by Kristi Jacobson. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Nelson Hume; editor, Ben Gold; music, T. Griffin; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital), John Mathie; supervising sound editor, Tom Paul; re-recording mixer, Tom Paul.

More Film

  • Demi Moore Corporate Animals

    Demi Moore Teases Upcoming Memoir 'Inside Out,' Talks 'Corporate Animals' Team Bonding

    As Demi Moore gears up for the Sept. 24 release of her autobiography “Inside Out,” the actress says she feels like a weight has been lifted. “Even the stuff that I may have been nervous about is completely lifting…because it’s a process,” Moore told Variety at the premiere of her upcoming film “Corporate Animals” at [...]

  • Bloodline

    Film Review: 'Bloodline'

    The manic, filter-free, all-id persona Seann William Scott embodied in the roles that first brought him to attention nearly a couple decades ago — notably teen comedies “Road Trip,” “Dude, Where’s My Car?” and the “American Pie” series — did something inspired with a familiar type. The alpha frat-bro character is usually a villain, or [...]

  • Jack Gilardi, Longtime ICM Partners Agent,

    Jack Gilardi, Longtime ICM Partners Agent, Dies at 88

    Jack Gilardi, a longtime ICM Partners agent who represented such stars as Burt Reynolds, Sylvester Stallone, Jerry Lewis, Charlton Heston and Shirley MacLaine, died Thursday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 88. Gilardi was known for his gentlemanly style, love of the Los Angeles Dodgers and his skill at representing top actors. He [...]

  • Depeche Mode - Dave GahanLes Vieilles

    Depeche Mode Documentary Gets One-Night Theatrical Release

    Depeche Mode has reunited with the group’s long-time filmographer, Anton Corbjn, for a combination documentary/concert film, “Spirits in the Forest,” which Trafalgar Releasing has announced it will put on approximately 2400 screens worldwide for one night Nov. 21. The film documents performance footage from the Berlin dates of Depeche Mode’s 115-gig Global Spirit Tour of [...]

  • Promare

    Film Review: 'Promare'

    Anime maniacs have been waiting for this day: Eight years ago, Hiroyuki Imaishi co-founded Studio Trigger with the goal of one day hatching a feature as wild and innovative as his TV series “Gurren Lagann” and “Kill la Kill.” Now he has. Every bit as loud and ambitious as one might expect from a visual [...]

  • Paul Dano

    Paul Dano in Talks to Join Jane Campion's 'The Power of the Dog' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Paul Dano is in negotiations to join Benedict Cumberbatch in Netflix and Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog.” Netflix acquired the film earlier this summer from See-Saw Films’ in-house sales arm Cross City Films. Variety first reported on the project earlier this month and Cross City Films launched sales at the Cannes Film Festival. [...]

  • The Sleepwalkers

    Toronto Film Review: 'The Sleepwalkers'

    Argentine writer-director Paula Hernández likes to explore what happens when characters from different worlds are thrown together. In her latest, “The Sleepwalkers,” which world-premiered in Toronto’s Platform competition before moving on to San Sebastian, the focus is on a discontented mother and her sullen, newly pubescent teen daughter, as they spend a New Year’s holiday [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content