Most folks would throw a fit if you opened a prison in their backyard. Not the Arkansas town in Brubaker; wards of the state are good for business. They’ll till soil, cut lumber, deliver shipments of meat — hell, train a gun on a man and he’ll do whatever you tell him to. You don’t even need armed guards. For a few choice privileges, inmates can be trusted with a sawed-off shotgun, and the state need not worry about paying salaries.

Prison life in Brubaker is so corrupt, you’ll doubt it as Hollywood embellishment. But despite some dramatic license, the plot is based on true events. The film’s Wakefield State Penitentiary is based on Cummins State Prison Farm, where scandal erupted in 1967 when a reformist warden uncovered systemic rape, torture and murder. Nearly 200 men were estimated to be buried in the fields behind the prison, all of them “escapees” — with crushed skulls and broken legs. The most shocking revelation was how profitable the prison was, raising nearly $1.4 million along with a sister facility over a period of years.

Brubaker aims to bring the story to wider audiences while also serving as an “issues” movie. It’s a sickening depiction of what happens when foxes mind a henhouse, but is often too preoccupied with delivering its prison reform message to offer characters that are more than archetypes.

Even the lead, while likable, feels unreal. Robert Redford stands in for the upstart warden, here named Henry Brubaker. He’s a daring and hot-blooded idealist who believes penitentiaries can be more than just a snake pit for the damned. In a fairly unbelievable turn, he enters the prison incognito as an inmate; after witnessing first-hand the beatings, crumbling facilities and unethical use of prisoners as slave labor, he unmasks himself. The abuse, he says, is going to end.

But the armed inmates stand to lose their power, and the locals their free labor. The most opposition comes from a state prison board, which regards Brubaker as an uppity liberal, crusading on behalf of thieves who had their chance in society. Now that they’re in uniforms, they argue, society can do with them as they please.

The abuses committed against the prisoners are obscene. Unfortunately, the scenes depicting Brubaker’s quixotic prison reforms feel glib and a little patronizing. Within weeks, the prisoners are joking, pursuing hobbies and voting on members of an inmate council. Prohibiting routine beatings is a guaranteed morale booster, but these are practiced criminals. Surely prisons less savage than Wakefield still have halls filled with violence, even if you improve conditions somewhat. There are times when the prison feels more like a rowdy detention hall, but The Breakfast Club this ain’t.

Also disarming is the way Brubaker walks among the inmates unprotected. Considering all the guards are inmates themselves, Brubaker seems to be the only state employee in the whole prison. Even his clerk is an inmate. You start to wonder if the prisoners are being kept in line by the sheer charisma of Robert Redford.

Overlook that, though, and you have a thriller about how corruption spreads when everyone stands to benefit. The guards, the townsfolk, the state government — everyone has something to gain by playing the game. The only one who refuses to play is Brubaker, with Redford smoldering during a memorable scene before the state prison board, which presses him to toe the line.

That macro look at corruption, however, works against the film, too. Most of the characters are thinly drawn (Morgan Freeman stands out briefly as a half-mad prisoner who holds a man hostage and demands the prison be repainted). You don’t get the misfit ensemble of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

While the film has some strong debates about prison reform, those scenes largely feel like expository chaff. It would be a shorter movie — and a better story — had the filmmakers left the political oration to politicians.

Andrew Good is a film critic and writer living in San Diego.

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