Chic advertising executive Dinah Hunter (Yvette Mimieux) grows sick of her sexist client and drives home to find her husband skinny-dipping with a topless nymphet. Determined to start a new life and job in New York, she drives cross-country but unwisely picks up a hitchhiking hick (Robert Carradine) and his pregnant halfwit girlfriend (Nancy Lee Noble). The pair promptly car-jack Dinah and leave her stranded in the woods. Things don’t get any better for Dinah as she is almost raped by a sleazy backwoods bartender whilst using his phone then arrested by a dopey deputy when she fights back. The local sheriff (Severn Darden) imprisons Dinah alongside surly murderer and melon thief (?), Coley Blake (Tommy Lee Jones), whereupon her ordeal turns into a nightmare.
Produced by reliable Roger Corman and an early credit for screenwriter Donald Stewart, who went on to adapt most of Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan thrillers throughout the Nineties and also pen Costa-Gavras’ excellent Missing (1982), Jackson County Jail was part of the so-called hicksploitation bonanza of the Seventies. Largely in reaction to news reports from the Sixties detailing the backlash against the civil rights movement and resulting protests, riots, murders and other KKK-endorsed atrocities, the likes of Nightmare in Badham County (1976), Escape from Bogen County (1977) and the most celebrated example, Macon County Line (1974), painted a somewhat unfair portrait of the Southern states as full of homicidal, racist, in-bred degenerates who would likely lynch you as soon as look at you. Of course, big cities like New York and Los Angeles held no shortage of rape, murder, racism and civil unrest, but never spawned their own subgenre. In later years such films were perhaps justly derided by comedian and Southerner Rich Hall who raised these points in an illuminating documentary for the BBC.
Ably directed by Michael Miller, whose eclectic output includes the oddball slasher/martial arts/science fiction Chuck Norris vehicle Silent Rage (1982) and slasher parody National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (1982), the film is undoubtedly exploitative but packs a provocative agenda. Stewart’s convoluted plot deposits upscale feminist Dinah from an outwardly civilised yet suffocatingly male-driven urban environment into a borderline neanderthal throwback nightmare, along the way mounting a trenchant critique of the souring of the American Dream by the mid-Seventies. It is a shame the film falls back on so many Southern stereotypes to make its point, but they serve their purpose.
Darden’s Sheriff proves a reasonable sort, but his deputies are exactly the kind of cackling redneck goons audiences would expect to encounter at the drive-in during the Seventies. The worst of the bunch (Fredric Cook) rapes Dinah, in an appropriately harrowing scene, after which she bludgeons him to death and goes on the run with Coley incurring some accidental casualties along the way. In a neat irony, the most patient and understanding man in Dinah’s life proves to be a convicted murderer. The script yokes some mileage from the clash of ideologies with Dinah adamant there are some honest people left in the world while Coley clings to his belief America is irredeemably corrupt and the only way to survive is go underground. While a notable bond blossoms between the two, Stewart wisely avoids steering the relationship towards unconvincing romance. After the jailbreak the plot grows somewhat aimless, including a brief but pointless encounter with Coley’s redneck gang - who include Mary Woronov as a gun-toting butch lesbian - but also more pointed in its sociopolitical satire, climaxing as the fugitives stumble into the midst of a small town bicentennial celebration that erupts into a shootout with the lawmen callously indifferent to innocent deaths.
It is less snappy than many Corman productions but boasts a sharp script, solid direction and fine performances all round, particularly the young Tommy Lee Jones, back in the days when he was an exploitation stalwart, and Yvette Mimieux, deglamourised and forceful as the long-suffering lead.