Locked Up And Loaded

FELON
RUNNING TIME 104 minutes
WRITTEN AND
DIRECTED BY Ric Roman Waugh
STARRING Stephen Dorff, Val Kilmer, Sam Shepard, Harold Perrineau


Prison movies may not be everyone’s idea of escapist entertainment, but with nearly two million people overcrowding the U.S. penal system already and the numbers growing daily, it’s a problem worth addressing. Audiences are gruesomely fascinated by horror stories behind bars, and like the phenomenal TV series Oz, the stuff that happens in a tense, taut new movie called Felon is nothing less than electrifying.

The versatility and charisma of the dynamic, always surprising actor Stephen Dorff is the catalytic converter in this harrowing story of an innocent man caught up in America’s flawed legal system. One minute Wade Porter is a nice, hardworking guy with a devoted fiancée, an adoring 3-year-old son, a promising future and a new bank loan to start his own business. The next minute he’s awakened by a thief who invades his home, and in the ensuing chase to protect his family, he accidentally kills the intruder with a baseball bat. Through a legal loophole, he’s arrested, stripped, fingerprinted, thrown into a county jail with a cell full of rapists, addicts and killers, then charged with first-degree murder. Before you can yell “Help!” he’s in Dragon Country.

Through a plea bargain conceived by incompetent public defense lawyers, he gets a three-year stretch in a state prison, but before he even gets there, another prisoner is knifed on the bus and the weapon planted on Wade. Three years turns into six, and like William H. Macy in David Mamet’s nightmarish Edmond, he’s the only blond, blue-eyed Caucasian in a snake pit called “the shoe”—a lockup for the hardest cases where the word rehabilitation does not exist. In the shoe, vengeance, brutality and hopelessness are the talismans everyone lives by. The boss is now a sadistic guard (Harold Perrineau, a doomed inmate himself on Oz) who stages his own weekly fun and games by throwing prisoners of all races, sizes and mismatched physical dimensions into a concrete cage called “the yard,” where they are forced to fight it out with bare knuckles, guns pointed at their heads from the guard booth, like gladiators. Bloody and broken in body and spirit, Wade loses his house, his truck, his tools and finally his family, and his only way out is death—or a miracle.

The miracle comes at last with the aid of his cellmate, a lifer without the possibility of parole (Val Kilmer), who forms a strange attachment to Wade’s plight, and of a retired guard (Sam Shepard) who pulls a rabbit out of a dead man’s hat. No spoilers. How it turns out is up to you, but be forewarned and forearmed: Felon is not for anyone with a heart murmur. As prison flicks go, it is exceptionally well directed and written by Ric Roman Waugh with maximum realism, and the acting is positively superb. Stephen Dorff is so convincing that he makes you feel his pain, terror and courage. A few clichés abound (monstrous guard, oblivious warden, innocent victim, vicious inmate with empathy), but the film plants you behind bars where the laws and rules of society no longer apply, and you’re at the mercy of both cops and killers, all of them bad. With fresh cases reported weekly about wrongly convicted prisoners who are locked up unfairly then later proven innocent after their lives are permanently damaged, a movie like Felon really makes you think while you shudder. Just consider the number of people who should be locked up, and some of them live in Washington, D.C.

rreed@observer.com