Felon (2008) – By Cary Conley

One of the things I love about Netflix streaming video is that you can try a movie and if it’s totally worthless, you just pick something else and try it. So it was that I had some time to kill over Labor Day weekend and I was poking around Netflix and found Felon. The description sounded good and the reviews were OK, so I figured I could give it a 15-minute tryout. If I didn’t like it, no harm, no foul, I’d just check out something else.

This little indie flick has an all-star cast, with Stephen Dorff, a solid character actor co-starring with Val Kilmer and supported by Anne Archer and Sam Shepard. Dorff plays Wade Porter, an all-around good guy who owns his own business and his own home and has a wedding date with the love of his life and mother of his small son. His construction business is looking up and he’s just secured a small-business loan which will allow him to expand. All-in-all, life is good. One night, Porter and his fiancé Laura (played by the beautiful Marisol Nichols) are awakened by an intruder in their home. Wade manages to chase the intruder outside to the front lawn. Seeing the thief reaching for something in his pocket, Wade hits him in the back of the head with a baseball bat, killing the man with one swing.

Thus begins the family’s living nightmare of injustice. Once the police arrive, they explain to Wade that he will be arrested for murder for hitting the man in the back of the head in his yard. In disbelief,
Wade tries to explain that he thought the man was pulling a gun from his pocket, but all the police find is Wade’s wallet next to the corpse. Wade is taken into custody and summarily thrown into county lockup where he is subjected to the humiliation of a strip search and very personal questioning as he is processed through intake. Once in the holding cell, he is attacked for no reason. Humiliated and beaten up, he is thrown into solitary for causing trouble until his public defender arrives.

Further bad news: Wade has no real defense so he will be prosecuted for second degree murder–he is looking at 15 years to life. In another of a string of injustices, Wades public defender explains to him that if he pleads no contest to involuntary manslaughter, he will get 3 years, out in 15 months. If he wants a trial, not only will he lose, but it will be 15 months before he has his first hearing. Already in jail for three months, he has no choice: plea to the lesser offense and stick out the time.

Meanwhile, his son misses his father and doesn’t understand why Wade has left the family while his fiancé is struggling financially. Pleading no contest to manslaughter, Wade is sent to San Quentin where things only get worse even before he arrives. There is a riot on the bus and an inmate is stabbed. Somehow Wade ends up with the shank. The prison guards know Wade didn’t stab the man, but they want Wade to rat on the real killer–a lifer and multiple murderer known as a hard case in prison. Fearing for his life, Wade keeps quiet, but because of his silence, the guards send him to "The Shoe"–the toughest part of San Quentin where only the hardest gang members are sent.

Enter Val Kilmer who plays John Smith, another hardened criminal that has been screwed by the system. Knowing he’s a lifer, Smith relishes playing the inmates off the guards and causing a great deal of trouble. He is transferred to "The Shoe" as a last resort before he is sent to solitary for life. The guards put him with Wade, assuming that Smith will "adjust" Wade’s attitude. In fact, the two become friends, with Smith taking Wade under his wing and teaching him how to survive San Quentin.

As the guards keep pushing Wade to rat, he becomes even more entangled with the stabbing incident, receiving an additional seven years as an accomplice due to the false testimony of one of the prison guards. His fiancé has to sell the house and the business and move in with her mother (Archer). Eventually, she leaves Wade. As a last ditch effort to expose the injustices of the system and to get his life and family back, Wade and Smith hatch a plan to catch the abuse of the prisoners by the guards on tape. Setting up an elaborate plan that involves not only manipulating the guards and prisoners but also involves secret messages to his wife and her help on the outside, the ending is a tense race between the guards and possible death for Wade or the successful exposure of the abuse.

While Felon is a very good prison drama, it also is a terrific human drama. Because the story is told about a prison, we have the obligatory prison scenes of fights, stabbings, and other violence which is such a part of any state’s prison system. But unlike many "prison movies," Felon also explores the toll a prison sentence takes on an inmate’s extended family as well, and it does so very poignantly and realistically. The violence is certainly violent, but not in an exploitative way; the film could have been much more gory. While there certainly is some blood involved, overall I thought the director did an excellent job of realistically portraying what prison must be like without overreaching and forgetting that this is a film about human emotions and how prison affects both the inmate and the inmate’s loved ones. The director does a good job of balancing the gritty and realistic portrayal of prison with the overwhelming emotions of those affected both directly and indirectly by the system.

Not content to keep the guards one-dimensional, the film also does a very nice job of exploring the emotions the guards have and how they can develop into insensitive and cruel people just as the inmates are forced to do, just as Wade is forced to do. As one character explains, "The system affects everyone." Looking at the guards, he concludes, "They’re in jail, too." Sam Shepard, who is always good no matter what film he’s in, plays a retired guard who spent his career guarding John Smith. Now retired and haunted by Smith’s case, he feels he owes Smith something and keeps checking in with him. He is finally able to repay his (real or imagined?) debt to Smith by helping bring down the abusive guards.

Felon was a nice surprise. I was expecting a mindless, one-dimensional prison flick but instead was treated to a thoughtful, touching, and thought-provoking film, part action movie, part human drama. Definitely worth catching, either as a rental or if you have Netflix streaming, look it up.