Something on the order of two million inmates are behind bars in the United States and both the number of prisoners and the incarceration rate (prisoners as a percentage of the population) have increased steadily for twenty years or more. In the mid-1990s, the budgets for prisons exceeded the budgets for universities in both California and New York for the first time. It’s no wonder that the subject is of wide concern.
But what goes on behind bars has always held a certain lurid fascination for the majority of the population that never sees the inside of a prison. Prison movies are a long tradition, from The Big House in 1930 to Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) to more recent fare such as The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1999).
The Warden takes a prison that’s out of control, a death behind bars, and an ambitious woman who wants to be in charge, to spin a yarn that’s part who-done-it investigatory, part exploration of contemporary feminist themes, and part political expose. It’s only partly successful in bringing it all together into convincing drama.
The strongest feature of The Warden is the central investigation story. Helen Hewitt (Ally Sheedy), the ambitious assistant warden at a women’s prison, is appointed acting warden of a major–and problematic–men’s prison. At her new post there has just been an explosion and fire which triggered a full blown riot by the inmates. At the same time, one of the inmates is found dead, presumed to be a suicide. Hewitt starts to dig into the evidence and question prisoners about what happened. She meets resistance from the prison board, the guards, and the prisoners as well. It’s clear that a coverup is going on. There is a fair degree of interest in the piece-by-piece uncovering of events and motivations, overburdened, perhaps, with a heavy dose of coincidence. And the backstory about Hewitt’s father has been drawn straight out of the cliche catalogue.
To no one’s surprise, putting a woman in the role of warden of a men’s prison generates ugly scenes of sexism. But feminist issues are brought into play on the personal as well as on the institutional level. Hewitt, devoted to her career, has neglected her husband (Sam Robards) and son; they are separated. The film seems to suggest that career and family not only are difficult to juggle, but cannot be successfully combined. Another female character acts emotionally and unprofessionally due to job pressures. Feminists may not be happy with these scenarios; the issue is whether the film (written by a woman) really intended to make a statement, or just didn’t let much reflection get in the way of the story.
Ally Sheedy’s performance here helps explain why her career is mired in B-level product. Her narrow range of expression offers stiffness instead of tension; her speech patterns make her seem more a not-too-bright valley girl than a tough and poised prison warden. Surrounded by a cast of pros (Lindsey Crouse, Robert Gossett, Ron Rifkin), none of whom have very much to do, Sheedy is in almost every scene. She mires the film in its weaknesses rather than capitalizing on what strengths the script does offer.