Michael (Dafyhd Flynn) is arrested for holding drugs for his friend's older brother, and is sent to prison where he's taken under the wing of David (Moe Dunford) and is exposed to the casual violence of life behind bars.
The prison drama is a well-worn genre in film and has been covered with varying degrees of success and wildly different tones. Escape From Alcatraz, with Clint Eastwood and Patrick McGoohan, played it like a hard-bitten battle of wills. The Shawshank Redemption used it as a tale of hope and redemption. Others blend in comedy, action and horror but very few of these have captured the entire spectrum of the experience - not just the beginning, but also the life after and the effect it has on not just the convict but the convict's family, friends and relationships. What MIchael Inside does so incisively and so starkly is snap these into focus without judgement and with care, diligence and artistic acuity.
From the opening scenes of Michael Inside, you can see that the use of colour and texture is done with the lightest touch - but all of it adds together to create a clear vision of what's happening. Little by little, we see Michael recede further into himself as time progresses and the grinding pressure of his situation begins to take a physical toll on him. Again, it's done with such subtlety that it slots perfectly with the restrained performances and makes for a more authentic telling in the story. Dafhyd Flynn's performance in the central role as Michael is economic and restrained, but the slow-burn pacing allows for a depth and richness to it that few directors would give the time to allow to come into being. Likewise, Moe Dunford's character isn't just your standard prison mentor - the script is far too clever for that - and instead, we're shown someone with motivations that extend beyond what you'd expect or could hope to reason with. Lalor Roddy, who plays Michael's grandfather and the emotional support for him, has a stillness to him that's utterly compelling and can only come with an actor of his skill and experience.
From start to finish, Michael Inside follows a throughline that pulls you along on the story but never feels rushed. Instead, it's almost like a stream of consciousness, where the camera glides in and out of the tiny cells or rests just over the shoulder of a scene that we just happen to be sneaking in on. This kind of unfiltered, unfettered direction makes the moments of violence and trauma all the more raw and tangible. When you see it happen on screen, it feels like a camera just happened to catch the moment as it went down. That's not to say it's gratuitous or exploitative, but there's an edge to it that's unlike any other crime drama to come out of the Irish film industry. Tonally, Michael Inside keeps the tragedy of it all under wraps and instead of focus on the survival and the pragmatism of it. He just has to get through it, keep his head down and it'll work itself out. It's only when Michael is eventually released that we see it and begin to understand that the prison sentence starts the day you're released.
Frank Berry's work is reminiscent of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, in that it focuses on portions of Irish society that are either ignored or claimed for the sake of entertainment or parody. Throughout Michael Inside, there is no sense of justice or people getting what they deserve for their crimes, or even criminality itself. Instead, you're shown someone who is impressionable, who fell in with the wrong crowd, who came from a broken home, and who even in prison, is pushed around and led easily. What Berry's script does is show us all this without putting it into so many words. There are so many moments in Michael Inside when you find yourself desperately trying to hope the central character will see sense, but that speaks just to how compelling the script is - that we care that much what happens to him and the increasingly dangerous situations he finds himself in.
Though it clocks in at six minutes over an hour and a half, Michael Inside is the kind of film that will stay with you for days, weeks and months after you've seen it.