Stage 6 Films
Ric Roman Waugh/United States 2008

Morally confused and unabashedly entertaining, Felon aims to provide a gritty insider’s view of life in maximum-security lockup at California’s Corcoran State Prison. To do so it borrows liberally from a wealth of sources, including Carandiru and other Brazilian evocations of prison existence, MSNBC prison shows and Fight Club. Shot on handheld cameras and filled with brutal violence, the picture tells a bare-bones story with palpable intensity.

Writer-director Ric Roman Waugh provides the audience a hero and lends the hero a vague back story, all as a point of entry into the prison. Wade Porter (Stephen Dorff) has a beautiful fiancé, a cute son and a loan to subsidize his own business. Yet, the idyll comes crashing down when he accidentally murders a home invader on his lawn and not in his house, thereby eliminating any chance of proclaiming self-defense. He is sentenced to Corcoran and – after getting on the wrong side of the psychotic warden (Harold Perrineau) – finds himself placed in the maximum security wing, where serial murderer John Smith (Val Kilmer) soon joins him as his cellmate.

As portrayed by Kilmer – who appears to have ingested a horse for the part – Smith serves as Wade’s guardian angel, his Jiminy Cricket, if you will. Filled with wisdom and impossibly serene, he provides guidance and friendship to the naïve newbie, teaching him all about the various ethnic gangs and deranged prison officials populating their new home. Their friendship – the only genuine emotional connection to emerge within the prison’s unsparing walls – provides the only respite from what is otherwise a sensory assault.

I’ve racked my brain and can’t come up with another movie to so sympathetically characterize a serial killer, especially a character who admits to having wiped out two entire families. The filmmaker justifies Smith’s conduct by establishing that one member of each clan contributed to the brutal murder of his wife and daughter. In other words, mass murder is permissible as long as one or two of the dozens of people you kill murdered your family.

Leave aside that interesting conceit and what’s left is an absurdly self-serious dramatization of the gang wars and authoritarian abuses that serve as staples of prison life. The filmmaker caters to hardcore action fans with the picture’s real central focus: scenes of bare knuckled, knock down brawls in the courtyard. The surrounding narrative, which chronicles the destruction of Wade’s picturesque life, comes across as an over-the-top, simplified rendering of ruined familial bliss taken straight out of a 1980s revenge flick.

However, what the movie lacks in complexity it makes up for in sheer visceral impact. The camerawork amplifies the prison’s blood-soaked, seedy interiors and it immerses the audience in every last body blow during the fight scenes. Waugh goes at the material without restraint, heightening the violence and grimness at every possible opportunity. Perrineau – playing a character that personifies authoritarian villainy (also a staple of ’80s action) – provides such a fearsome presence that it’s possible to sympathize with at least some of the motley gang of criminals without feeling too repugnant afterward.

The filmmaker obviously intends Felon to be taken seriously as commentary on the current state of the American justice system, particularly its failure to account for the safety and security of the millions of individuals currently imprisoned. However, with such credited characters as “large black inmate,” “Hispanic fighter two” and “Loco,” as well as a profoundly perverted moral compass, the production can be more appropriately tied to the legacy of right-wing cinematic propaganda begun with Dirty Harry and Death Wish that reached its apex during the ’80s. Don’t be confused by its limited, art house release: The movie is as mainstream as they come. And surprisingly – in its fervent appeal to the basest of instincts – it works pretty well.

© 2008 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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