Stephen Dorff’s powerhouse perf as an ordinary Joe trapped behind bars with warring ethnic psychopaths propels “Felon” well ahead of its expose/exploitation brethren while still avoiding the pious learning curves of Frank Darabont’s prestige prison dramas. Stuntman-turned-writer/director Ric Roman Waugh, inspired by actual events at California’s Corcoran State Prison, also relies heavily on a chilling turn by “Oz” vet Harold Perrineau (previously paired with Dorff in Bob Raefelson’s “Blood and Wine”) as a soft-spoken sadistic guard. Opening today at Gotham’s Sunshine Cinema, pic reps a dynamite start for Sony’s low-budget Stage 6 Films label.
Dorff plays Wade Porter, a struggling California contractor on a definite roll: He’s just received a substantial bank loan to expand his business and will soon wed Laura (Marisol Nichols), longtime g.f. and mother of his son. After he chases a burglar out of his house with a baseball bat, an unlucky swing leaves the unarmed intruder dead, and Wade is sent to prison to serve a three-year term for manslaughter.
As minding one’s own business proves not to be an option in the joint, Wade immediately becomes enmeshed in conflicts not of his own making. In the highly polarized, racially divided battleground of the yard, to not be allied is to be targeted by everyone — including the guards who, led by the hateful Lt. Jackson (Perrineau), bet on gladiator contests between prisoners. Wade’s futile attempts to resist regressing to animalistic behavior are quickly quashed by Jackson, who sees any glimmer of humanity among inmates as a crime against the natural order.
Waugh sets up a parallel indoctrination story among the guards, where a new, fresh-from-the-army recruit (Nate Parker) is reluctantly initiated into the brutal abuses of power that pass for violence control under Jackson.
Wade is saved from incipient madness by the arrival of a cellmate, legendary lifer John Smith (a hulking, bearded, tattoo-covered Val Kilmer), who cryptically shares his philosophy with the new fish. Waugh’s script undercuts any “Green Mile”-style epiphanies by making said philosophy nearly incomprehensible, if not completely psychotic. But Smith’s crash course in prison survival, not to mention his willingness to talk rather than grunt, functions as a lifeline for the rapidly sinking Wade. The camera, constantly shifting to frame Wade within immediate, hostile environments, settles down in scenes with Smith, an immovable presence.
Dorff subtly internalizes a gradual process of dehumanization while outwardly, his bulked-up, skinheaded appearance proclaims his metamorphosis into a hardened inmate. The sense of intimacy conveyed by lenser Dana Gonzales’ jittery handheld camerawork sometimes strays from testosterone-soaked lockdown sequences to incorporate visits with uncomprehending fiancee Laura, striving to reconcile herself to the hell of Wade’s incarceration.
Thesps, who include both actual felons (pic was shot on location at a New Mexican correction facility) and a wonderfully weary Sam Shepard as a sympathetic ex-warden, seem positively plugged into the project.