Sunday, 22 February 2009
Written & Directed by: Ric Roman Waugh
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Harold Perrineau & Val Kilmer
Exceptional prison drama, Felon slipped in under the radar but shows with a good story, a little heart and a pull no punches attitude a great film can be made. The prison movie is an often overlooked genre but it can provide drama and thrills in equal measure. Stephen Dorff plays Wade Porter a dedicated family man who kills the man who breaks into his house one night. The man attempts to flee but Wade chases him down and hitting him to the head with a baseball bat, involuntarily kills him. Prosecuted for manslaughter, Wade is sent to prison where things only get worse. First, he is set up for another murder (this time of an inmate) thus transferred to a maximum security prison and his sentenced increased. Here he is under the watchful and corrupt eye of head guard Jackson (Perrineau) who, along with his men, likes to make the inmates fight in bar knuckle tournaments. Wade is thrown into this cycle of violence and becomes adept at fighting. Meanwhile, his new cell mate is a renowned and respected killer (Kilmer) who may just be the last and most unlikely person to help Wade escape a lifetime of prison incarceration.
Despite relying on old prison movie clichés (innocent man sent down; corrupt guards; old timer teaching the newbie the ways of prison life) Felon rarely takes the easy route and provides some thoroughly fresh and well rounded characters to tell a well worn story. Wade’s circumstances, sometimes through his own fault, get ever increasingly worse no matter how hard he tries to make them better. Dorff’s performance is excellent, always keeping the character human: he makes mistakes but is never a total idiot; he becomes adept at fighting but refrains from truly crossing over to the dark side; his love for his family never feels forced and you always feel the terror he goes through whenever he faces the next prison atrocity. Likewise, Kilmer (buried under cool facial hair, glasses and tattoos) gives a riveting and realistic performance as a man who has done bad and has to pay for it for the rest of his life. Never truly evil or preachy his conversations with Dorff’s character feel much more like two people having a normal conversation rather than movie scripted, drama eliciting dialogue. Lost’s Harold Perrineau is also exceptionally good as the conflicted and corrupt guard who once may have set out to do good but has now become as bad as any of the inmates. There is also great support from Sam Shepard, Nick Chinlund and especially Marisol Nichols as Wade’s suffering wife.
The fights themselves are brutally realised and never stylized with opponents ending up truly battered and bruised. Perhaps the best thing about Felon is the engagingly and terrifying look at maximum security prison life. The drama is never contrived with rousing music or showing the protagonist living in squalor. Rather the environment is a clean, clinical and claustrophobic one completely cut off from society; the tension is built from Dorff’s realistic performance and reactions to being so suddenly thrust into a confined place full of some the world’s worst people. The final stretch unfortunately does revert to movie predictability as Wade, his wife and Kilmer’s inmate set in motion a plan to take down the corrupt guards (not all of them corrupt I might add, and many of who have to go through their own emotional upheaval), it all executed a little too easy. But it never destroys the powerful impact and entertaining value of Felon, one of the best prison movies to come along in an age and a vehicle that shows both Dorff and Kilmer still have talent to burn.