Michael McCrea (Dafhyd Flynn) is a trusting and impressionable 18-year-old. He thinks nothing of holding onto drugs for a local dealer.
When his family home is raided and he is detained on possession charges, Michael and those he leaves behind are forced to deal with the consequences in writer/director Frank Berry’s heartbreaking drama Michael Inside.
This film was inspired by situations Berry encountered during the making of I Used to Live Here (2014), which dealt with issues of identity and the effect of suicide on the local community, and made great use of amateur performers. It felt real because, to some extent, it was real.
Michael Inside is more of a typical picture, with a number of established actors among its cast. Nevertheless, it manages to retain the vérité feel of Berry’s previous amateur-led picture.
Leading man Dafhyd Flynn returns from I Used to Live Here. His performance is rough and ready, and there’s a rawness to Flynn’s acting that makes Michael feel all the more like a real person.
Berry’s direction renders the world as one gigantic prison. Tracking shots are used to create an uneasy feeling as Michael goes about his daily life. Interiors are cramped and filmed with low lighting.
Even the brief moments of romance between Michael and his girlfriend Orla (Hazel Doupe) are framed by chain-link fencing and obscured by scenery in the foreground. There is not too much to distinguish the atmosphere of the outside world to that seen in the prison scenes.
Outside of prison, Michael is a still very much an adolescent. He is naive in his adherence to a prescribed code of honour. Social pressure forces him to take the rap and a three-month jail sentence. Michael doesn’t want to snitch, not necessarily out of fear, but because he’s following the rules.
Inside, Michael experiences a trial by fire. He is forced to become an adult all too quickly in the dog-eat-dog world of prison. The same loyalties and rules that saw him go down in the first place are rearranged to form a complex chessboard of friends and enemies.
Moe Dunford’s seasoned David takes Michael under his wing, showing him the ropes and fending off attackers. But nothing comes for free in jail, and Michael is soon helping David solve problems with brutal violence. David plays a sort of stand-in father-figure for Michael.
Dunford’s characterisation is surprising; he is horrifying but with a lot of humanity. Tense scenes between Dunford and Flynn end in surprising ways. Any sequence featuring Dunford is one to see; the intensity he brings to the role makes for squirmy but essential viewing.
Prison has proven itself an alluring setting for movies. The ins and outs of life in jail make for decent show-and-tell film-making, so much so that moviegoers are intimately familiar with prison life, or at least a vision of prison life that’s formed through countless retreads on the big screen.
For all the horrors that prison films show us, they can often be fun to watch as well. Berry avoids this appeal.
He intensifies his directing style for the prison scenes. Frequent, sustained tracking shots give the impression that Michael is always been watched. Close-ups and tight framing emphasise cramped living conditions.
Berry chills us with the gruesome and horrific side of prison life. His camera is intrusive and unflinching.
But there are glimpses of humanity here and there, the same close-ups that show us terrible acts of violence also reveal the conflict within Michael as he struggles to hold on to the better part of himself.
Rather than root for Michael to make it on the inside, as we might in other prison narratives, we want him to resist becoming like David or the other prison toughs. Every little victory for Michael on the inside is a gut punch to the viewer, and a condemnation of the system that saw him go down in the first place.
Back on the outside, it is as if Michael never left prison. There’s a sense that re-offending is simply an inevitability. The gardaí treat Michael with suspicion when he walks home at night, and the gangs that harassed him in prison and menaced his grandfather continue to make their presences known.
Michael is still doing time on the outside. Trapped in a cycle of bad breaks and condemnation. He has no choice but to be the man that the world now wills him to be. Michael the individual is now a telling reflection of wider social problems. Problems seem systemic and everlasting.
Berry presents some avenues for change within Michael’s life, in the early sections of the film he studies as part of a youth-outreach programme and hopes to go on to a college course.
Later, a former convict and recovering drug addict speaks to inmates in a classroom setting. Again, there is a sense of actuality about these scenes that makes the tragic elements of Berry’s drama and Michael’s downfall all the more heart-rending.
There is some hope, but it will pass Michael by. There is no redemption for Michael, his narrative is a downward spiral.
A chilling sequence late in the film mirrors an earlier exchange between Michael and the prison administration. Earlier he had no record, he was not feuding with anyone, he was just a kid. By the close of the picture Michael is transformed into a hardened inmate, who is actively feuding, and whose life may be in danger.
The final sequence of the film suggests that death might be a sweet release from this point of no return.
By the close of the picture, we still feel for Michael and others in a similar position. But more than that we feel for the community at large and for our society as a whole, which seems content to judge its most vulnerable members, while others play scofflaw and flaunt their criminality without consequence.
Michael Inside will stick with you long after the credits have rolled. It’s the kind of film that gets under the skin. Berry and his cast have made an excellent drama here, but more than that, this is a film that speaks to a shameful reality in Irish society.
This film is a work of fiction but the issues it highlights are all too real. Berry renders these social problems on screen in a film that never feels preachy. Instead, Michael Inside comes from a place of genuine concern, which looks to art as a force for change.