In the opening sequence of Felon Wade Porter (Stephen Dorff) lives a reasonably good life with his long time girlfriend Laura (Marisol Nichols) and son Michael (Vincent Miller). He has his own business, the couple are planning their wedding, he has just got a small business loan approved and they have a house of their own. One night an intruder slips in through Micheal’s window and Wade goes after him with a baseball bat to protect his family. The intruder has stolen his wallet and Wade scares him off. Instead of doing what he should have, calling the police and staying in the house, Wade chases the intruder out onto the lawn and when the guy turns fumbling for something in his pocket Wade takes a swing. He accidentally kills the intruder.
The basic premise for Felon is that a regular Joe makes one bad decision which winds up having more dire consequences than he could possibly have predicted. Wade gets sentenced to three years for involuntary manslaughter and gets sent to prison. Things start going awry almost immediately, as in on the bus transporting him and a bunch of career criminals to a high security facility.
There are certain harsh truths about prison that I don’t think would surprise anyone at this point, namely that incarceration does not bring out the best in people.
Wade gets caught up in prison politics immediately when the leader of the Aryan Brotherhood gives the murder weapon used on the bus to Snowman (Johnny Lewis) who passes it on to Wade. Because Wade will not tell the prison guards, lead by Lt. Jackson (Harold Perrineau) what he saw he gets sent to ”The Shoe” (SHU), which is Jackson’s domain. This particular wing of the prison is completely under Lt. Jackson’s control and he seems to be of the opinion that the prisoners are little more than caged animals, which translates into their one hour of rec time in the claustrophobic prison yard being little more than a stage for cage fights that seems to be mostly about pent up aggression and racial hatred.
The guards watch all this from their bird’s nest, the observation tower where they sit in vigil with loaded weapons and wait to see who will come out on top. Mostly they let the fights go on just long enough that someone is bloodied and then they break them up buy firing rubber, real bullets or gas.
Wade is a ”new fish” in the shark tank and he has little or no idea how to navigate the waters. He defends himself when he has to at first and then fights when the brotherhood demands it of him.
The fights themselves are very visceral, a mixture of martial arts and street brawling. They are shot with a small hand-held unit that brings the viewer into the action in an almost disturbingly realistic way and that fits well with the overall feeling of claustrophobia and inevitability.
Apart from all this we also have the second level of the story, which mainly concerns itself with how the main characters actually have a life outside the walls. Wade’s wife struggles with trying to pay the bills and keep their house. Wade tries to keep it together for her and not tell her of the brutality of his prison life. The new guard, Officer Collins (Nate Porter), has just started a family and is trying to accept the extremely brutal attitude of the other guards and even Lt. Jackson has problems on the outside, when his wife divorces him and his son gets into a car accident.
Every character’s external life adds to the pressure that builds inside the walls and all that gets taken to the shark tank where it is played out like gladiatorial games.
There is, however, one truly fascinating character in the mix here, and that’s John Smith (Val Kilmer). He is a calm, unaffiliated, deeply connected and totally nihilistic lifer with a deep abiding love for family and an old biblical take on justice with a genius level IQ to back all that up. It’s a complex character played by an almost unrecognizable Val Kilmer. John Smith has an interesting relationship with a former guard of his, Gordon (Sam Shepherd), played with all the subtlety you can expect from two actors of that caliber. Stephen Dorff also gives a good performance of a man caught up in a veritable whirlwind of bad circumstance. He plays the edgy nervousness of someone literally fearing for his life in a situation he can’t get out of and there is enough character development that it pays to have someone who can find nuance in this otherwise bleak and grimly violent world enough that his actions become understandable.
The writer/director Ric Roman Waugh has done his homework well enough that you don’t find this over the top despite the level of violence. The thing I have some issues with is that the basic premise for this was that our every-man Wade is supposed to be a representation of a collective fear we all have of what could happen if we, due to unfortunate circumstance outside of our control, wind up in prison. And this is a little too heavy-handed for that. I understand the purpose behind the drama, the way the corruption amongst the guards is dealt with, but the heightened drama is not congruent with any kind of realism.
The moral core of any prison movie is always murky at best. This particular tale leaves no stone unturned, no bad deed unpunished and in the end Wade is redeemed and delivered back into the arms of his loving wife and that’s just a little too neat for me. Despite all the depth of character and the focus on interpersonal relationships there is still something a little hollow at the movies core, but luckily the actors’ performances are solid enough that it is still enjoyable to watch.
Felon (2008) directed by Ric Roman Waugh stars Stephen Dorff (Wade Porter), Marisol Nichols (Laura Porter), Vincent Miller (Michael Porter), Anne Archer (Maggie), Larnell Stovall (Viper), Val Kilmer (John Smith), Sam Sheperd (Gordon), Johnny Lewis (Snowman), Harold Perrineau (Lt. Jackson), Shawn Prince (Todd jackson), Chris Browning (Danny Samson), Nick Chinlund (Sgt Roberts), Greg Serano (Officer Diaz), Jake Walker (Warden Harris), Nate Parker (Officer Collins), Eric Gomez (Bodie), Mike Smith (Rooker) and Antonio Leyba (Gonzales).