“You’re like two people,” Julie (Evelina Fernandez) tells Montoya Santana (Edward James Olmos), a powerful figure in the Mexican Mafia. In a similar way, American Me is like two movies.

The first is a captivating examination of the everyday struggles for power that occur in prison. Santana has made a name for himself on the inside by being able to get inmates the same things they could on the outside: gambling, prostitution, and drugs, to name his most popular rackets.

In addition to starring as Santana, Olmos also directs the film, which knows the ropes of such an operation in ample detail, with few frills and capable clarity. Our first glimpse of this insider knowledge comes in a sequence which follows a balloon full of narcotics from one cavity of a girlfriend of Santana’s lifelong friend J.D. (William Forsythe) through the sewage pipes of Folsom State Prison into a different orifice of an inmate and passed down the cellblock in a pack of cigarettes in a sock. Such activity is routine for these men, and Olmos presents it exactly as such — each shot of the sequence revealing only the next necessary step in the process.

So, too, is the violence. One inmate makes the mistake of stealing a taste of the drugs as they’re passed along, and he is burned alive by a makeshift flamethrower. The victim’s gang demands restitution for the death, and Santana decides to kill one of their own. One minute, the unfortunate is lifting weights; the next, he is stabbed with quick, surgical precision. Olmos doesn’t linger on the acts or their effects, as there is simply no time or reason in this place to do so.

Santana is in prison after breaking and entering to evade a rival neighborhood gang with two of his friends, J.D. and Mundo (Pepe Serna), when they were teenagers. He was first in juvie but killed a fellow prisoner who raped him his first night there (Later, he orders the son of an Italian rival to suffer the same fate plus death, because the father refuses to cooperate). He and his friends are punished with extended sentences and a trip to Folsom because of “choices [they] made to survive.”

The film passes along the years, from 1943, when a riot helped turn Santana’s father (Sal Lopez) into a dismissive dad, through the 1970s, when Santana is released from prison after 18 years. Visitors come and go. Life on the outside moves forward, while nothing inside changes.

The second section, in which Santana tries to take back his barrio in East Los Angeles from outsider, rival gangs and courts Julie, is more generic crime drama. Santana serves the story better as a blank canvas of corruption than a specific character with a past, father issues, and a younger brother to watch over. The realization that the time spent with Julie also marks the first time this 34-year-old man has been to the beach, danced with a woman, or had sex, however, is not ignored.

This is a curt film about the appeal of the criminal life — the familial, if delicate, bond amongst the gang and the lure of power and respect — and the unending cycle of violence to which it inherently contributes. American Me loses its sureness when it leaves jail, but it is, nonetheless, effective overall.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society. For more of his reviews, visit his website.

Post a Comment