Film Review: K-11

Pulpy prison yarn lacks conviction.

Taking a walk on the wild side in her directing debut, Jules Stewart has opted to reboot the pulpy women-in-prison exploitation format that peaked with 1970s grind-core classics like The Big Doll House and Caged Heat. The twist here is that all these “female” inmate characters are actually gay, transsexual or transgender men, although several of the actors playing them are biologically women. Full of overwrought camping and vicious drag queens, K-11 feels in places like a deranged John Waters remake of The Shawshank Redemption.

Graduating to writer-director after more than two decades as a script supervisor, Stewart’s family connections may help boost the commercial prospects of this shamelessly trashy drama—she is the mother of Twilight star Kristen, who even has a brief cameo here as the voice at the end of a telephone line. Yes, K-Stew literally phones in her performance. But not even her star power can salvage K-11 from its own kitsch silliness. The film is sure to generate interest from LGBT audiences, but commercial appeal among the general film-going public seems likely to be limited.

Goran Visnjic plays Raymond Saxx, Jr., a wealthy Hollywood record producer arrested in the depths of a drug binge that left one of his rock-star clients dead, apparently murdered by Saxx in a jealous rage. For muddled reasons, he is assigned to K-11, the wing of L.A. County Jail reserved for gay and transgendered prisoners. Here he discovers a brutal, sexually charged queendom ruled over by the ruthless Mexican transsexual diva Mousey (Kate del Castillo) and a twisted, sadistic, corrupt warder, Johnson (D.B. Sweeney).

Saxx also forms a protective bond with the mentally fragile Butterfly (Portia Doubleday), who is being sexually abused by the monstrous child molester Detroit (Tommy Lister). Despite facing possible murder charges and a ruinous divorce, he begins formulating plans to turn the tables on these predators and help out his fellow inmates.

Stewart’s intentions are hard to read here. Thanks to overblown B-movie archetypes like Mousey and Johnson, the tone of K-11 is far too campy to work as a straight prison thriller—no pun intended. Nor is it a brazenly tongue-in-cheek, Rocky Horror-style parody. Visnjic gives a commendably restrained performance, lending this lurid story a much-needed edge of emotional realism. Ugly scenes of slow-motion throat-slashing and prison rape are not played for laughs.

Taking place almost entirely in the single jail location, K-11 looks and feels cheap. With a bigger budget and a dash more imagination, Stewart might have illuminated more of the dramatic subplot involving Saxx and his rock-star love rival. Instead, the story ends on an unresolved note of shallow vengeance and shady judicial horse-trading. Still, Stewart’s trashy debut does at least possess an enjoyably pulpy energy. Unfortunately, it is not quite good enough to deserve edgy cult status, and not quite bad enough to be a camp classic.
The Hollywood Reporter