Nearly two and a half million Americans are in prison today, and that number is increasing by one thousand a week. This grim statistic defining a penal system that is no longer about rehabilitation, remorse or redemption but simply detention and punishment under the most brutal and dehumanizing circumstances, is at the heart of the powerhouse prison drama, Felon.
Stephen Dorff, who was last spotted as a scary sexual sadist in Shadowboxer, sweats it out in Felon as Wade. He’s a San Diego family man with a three year old son, a thriving construction business, and a devoted girlfriend (Marisol Nichols) he’s about to marry, who he suddenly finds himself incarcerated in the big house after he kills an intruder following a home invasion.
Because Wade hit the fleeing man on the head outside his house and the intruder died from the blow, Wade is charged with second degree murder since the death did not occur in his home. In order to avoid a life sentence, Wade reluctantly pleads down to involuntary manslaughter, which could result in his release in little more than a year. But his troubles are just beginning as he’s sent off Corcoran State Prison. In this house of horrors filled with bloodthirsty inmates and violent guards, Wade finds himself trapped in a kind of roach motel situation where the notion of checking out barely exists, as hard time for unruly behavior often instigated by the guards, compounds into ever escalating sentences.
Based on actual atrocities at Corcoran State Prison and filmed at the New Mexico State Penitentiary which was the scene of the deadliest prison riot ever in US history, Felon captures the lethal chain of events in which any man can seemingly be turned into a monster, just trying to survive the savagery all around hime. And as Wade is soon to learn, the guards run what they term a gladiator school in the prison yard. There the most vicious inmates are set upon each other for sport by the guards, who place bets on the winners. And then call time out by shooting them and sending the wounded off to the infirmary.
Dorff gives a mesmerizing, devastating performance as he evolves from stunned civilian to brutalized inmate and dangerous prison thug himself. But ultimately transforming into a tested man who rediscovers his own humanity by way of deciphering the key to his liberation from injustice, through solidarity of the oppressed behind prison walls, and a healing connection to his destroyed family on the outside. And Val Kilmer as Smith, an introspective older lifer and Wade’s cellmate imparting his own peculiar tough love wisdom to the younger man, along with Sam Shepard as Smith’s mysterious, supportive visitor and friend, likewise bring to this story a rugged but elevating fortitude illuminating human hope and decisive closure, even in the most tragic circumstances.
Stage 6 Films
3 1/2 stars