Early in K-11, coked-up protagonist Raymond Saxx (Goran Visnjic) is thrown into a cell with a childlike transgender woman (Portia Doubleday) who introduces herself as “Butterfly, supreme symbol of change.” Unfortunately, the metaphors only get less subtle from there. Dealing with serious subjects like rape culture, drug abuse, and the plight of transgender individuals in the prison system, K-11 careens from one tonal extreme to the next, uncertain about whether it wants to be a gritty drama, camp artifact, or violent prison-sploitation flick. Ultimately, the filmmakers settle for a bizarre jailhouse variation on the trope of a ragtag group of unlikely allies banding together against common enemies, complete with sentimental bonding sessions and incongruous moments of levity.
The common enemies here are a sadistic warden (D.B. Sweeney, made up to resemble a low-rent, acne-ridden Hitler) and a vicious child molester (Tommy “Tiny” Lister, who has more dialogue here than in his previous dozen films combined), dual scourges of the K-11 block of Los Angeles county jail. This is a secure unit for prisoners—mainly gay and transgendered—assessed as being at risk in the general population. Saxx, just arrested on suspicion of killing a musician signed to his record label, is diverted to K-11 for ill-defined reasons (he is both straight and cisgender), becoming the community’s most popular member after a night of being kind to his fellow inmates. In conjunction with K-11 den mother Mousey (Kate del Castillo), he hatches a plot to oust the villainous duo that keeps the “dorm” in constant fear for their bodies, minds, and drug supply.
The film plays out like a particularly lurid episode of Oz, and as such isn’t exactly banal. There’s a restless energy to the proceedings, a certain sickly fascination from discovering what hysterical turn of events await around each corner. But the performances range from mediocre to cringe-worthy, from the underplaying Visnjic’s blank slate to the sneeringly histrionic turns by del Castillo and Sweeney. The writing doesn’t do the actors any favors either, as most of the characters are distinguishable only by skin color, attendant verbal tics, and individual renditions of the “crazy trannies with knives” stereotype mined so thoroughly by decades of exploitation films.
It’s easy to see that this trashy and thoroughly insubstantial film got distribution thanks to director Jules Stewart having spawned Kristen Stewart (the actress even makes a brief phone cameo), but K-11 is more likely to gain traction in public discourse for its troubling approach to its marginalized characters. Most of the transgendered characters of any note are played by women, and there’s a leering quality to the sequence in which Mousey transforms herself from attractive Kate del Castillo in spray-on stubble to attractive Kate del Castillo in full makeup and a tight outfit. Meanwhile, the background characters are continually placed in grimy, sensationalized contexts—posturing languidly in stark, neon-lit showers, excreting drug-filled balloons with accompanying sound effects, and getting into increasingly slap-tastic fights. The third-act attempt at humanizing those who have hitherto been exploited comes via an impromptu fashion show held by a few inmates as the rest provide love and support—and it’s all like some Chris Columbus movie that took a wrong turn somewhere, a disingenuous little note of have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too hypocrisy to top off a movie unlikely to garner much attention from any of the demographics it flirts with.