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Midnight Express (1978) Review

Prison looks bloody horrible. I know a lot of people will probably agree with that statement. I’ve only seen the inside of a prison in video games or Louis Theroux documentaries, and have assessed from those pieces that I would not like to enter prison whatsoever. For those that don’t have a choice though, or for those that are wrongfully imprisoned, I hope it’s nothing close to the torture on display in Midnight Express. If it is, then the Turkish prison system could do with somewhat of an overhaul, if not, then the mind of director Alan Parker needs cleansing almost immediately.

Midnight Express follows the true story of writer Billy Hayes, an American citizen who is arrested and thrown into a Turkish prison after trying to smuggle hash out of the country. Coinciding at a time when Turkey was cracking down on illegal substances tenfold, Hayes finds himself without much chance of escaping. Hayes is portrayed by the late Brad Davis in a solid leading performance that brings out the emotive horrors that await inside of escaping from an unethical prison.

No detail is spared throughout, but it’s not the most memorable movie. There’s no moment of real engagement, and it’s a shame because the subject matter is so tremendously terrifying that there’s enough room to explore the mindset and mentality of not only Hayes but the friends and enemies he makes throughout his time on the inside. John Hurt appears as Max from time to time, and it’s always a treat to see him on screen, but there’s nobody else aside from Max that gives me anyone to be all that interested in.

As strange as it sounds though, Midnight Express is far from boring, even with that lack of aforementioned engagement with its audience. It’s all very humdrum, trundling on through the depravity on display, taking it on the chin as if it were completely normal. The desensitization the film has towards the prisons inhabitants is perhaps its strongest feature. Grim surroundings, despicable ideals from the prisoners in there for genuinely morbid crimes and one plucky American who feels both desperate and out of place. It’s a nice little conflict that the film doesn’t develop nearly as enough as you’d have thought.

Still, Midnight Express presents us with a very horrifying tale, something I’m sure we’d all hope to avoid. Good performances on the whole lead the way, making up for some inconsistently dull direction and a general aversion to taking the concepts presented to it and running. Very placid filmmaking, which is odd given the horrors of the situation you can find yourself in while watching this biopic.

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Ewan Gleadow
Ewan Gleadow
Editor in Chief at Cult Following | News and culture journalist at Clapper, Daily Star, NewcastleWorld, Daily Mirror | Podcast host of (Don't) Listen to This | Disaster magnet

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