Operating System
By Matt Connolly

Dir. Ric Roman Waugh, U.S., Stage 6 Films

Befitting a film concerned with hand-to-hand combat, two opposing (if not necessarily opposite) forces jockey for dominance within Ric Roman Waugh’s Felon. In this corner: a forceful, unflinching expose of prison brutality and dehumanization, scrupulously detailed and shot with an eye for down-and-dirty, handheld authenticity. But look out, because here comes the challenger: a ripe melodrama charting the travails of an upstanding family man sent to jail for a crime of defense, determined to preserve his hard-fought domestic stability while simultaneously fighting the endemic improbity within his detention center. The system is both insurmountable and beatable; the individual at once a powerless victim of systemic indifference and an agent of proactive change. Any filmmaker attempting to both satisfy the norms of classical cinematic narrative (where agency resides with an individuated, goal-driven protagonist) and anatomize the ills of impersonal, amorphous social structures runs up against this thorny dialectic. The best of them recognize this irreconcilability and makes it the beating, tortured heart of their project.

Waugh is no such filmmaker, and Felon is a confused movie hobbled by its unwillingness to either fully engage its fundamental conflict or pick a side and stay there. If the results can prove unwieldy at best and disingenuous at worst, the film’s frantic vacillations between clear-eyed docudrama and potboiler thrills at least provide moments where unstable isotopes of visual and ideological information collide and spark in intriguing configurations. Mirroring the aforementioned bouts of violence at its center, Felon emits the freneticism of physical conflict, as well as the hollow letdown that accompanies its consummation.

Wade Porter (Stephen Dorff) lives in quiet, unassuming contentment with longtime girlfriend, Laura (Marisol Nichols), and their young son, Michael (Vincent Miller), in New Mexico. A much needed business loan has just come through, promising to kick-start his plan for a private construction business. This would-be dream rapidly devolves into nightmare, however, when Wade awakens one night and discovers a burglar in his home. He chases the thief outside with a baseball bat, taking an unintentionally fatal swing to his head in the process. Law enforcement soon arrives to inform Wade that, because the violent act technically occurred outside the perimeter of his house, he is responsible for the man’s death and is promptly charged with murder. (Waugh films this scene with a shaky, wandering camera, occasionally drifting away from the tense conversation between Porter and the police to focus upon carefree family photos resting on nearby shelves; whether this is meant to beef up the pathos or distract from the questionable legal grounds of the arrest remains debatable.) Despite the best efforts of a well-meaning defense attorney, Porter is quickly sentenced to three years in the Security Housing Unit, a brutal and dangerous detention center run with an iron fist by Lieutenant William Jackson (Harold Perrineau).

Cruel fate having upended the serene, middle-class idyll of Porter’s life, the film shifts gears to the inner workings of the penitentiary itself, and Felon initially shows an admirable commitment to chronicling the depersonalized banality of prison life’s numbing routines. Before Porter can exit his cell to be escorted to a nearby recreation area, the guards search his person for potentially dangerous foreign objects with the solemn meticulousness of an autopsy. The waves of disgust and boredom rippling through the guards’ voices as they repeat the dullest of commands (“Lift your arms”; “Grip the door”; “Move!”) hint at how the rituals of incarceration entrap all involved in vicious circles of tedium and resentment.

The film eventually shifts away from these subtler moments and focuses on the fierce brawls between convicts, a far more flagrant and shocking confluence of institutional power abuse and inmate rage. Taking place within the confines of the indoor recreation center (a single room with tall, blindingly white walls that resembles the world’s most testosterone-fueled racquetball court), these nasty scraps begin when simmering racial and ethnic tensions boil over, but they’re allowed to continue for the sheer sadistic pleasure of those running the prison. Jackson, in particular, delights in coolly observing the men bloody and break one another, cavalierly placing bets on those he thinks will come out on top and pelting the prisoners with rubber bullets when one appears close to killing the other. Porter inevitably becomes involved in these clashes, highlighting the central problem Felon fails to resolve: how do we cheer for Wade as he pummels his jailhouse antagonists if, by watching, we’re placed in the same odious ethical position as the prison guards surveying the violent spectacle with callous delight? There’s ambivalence to Waugh’s formal choices in these scenes, as if acknowledging this conundrum. The camera sometimes bobs and weaves around the action, keeping just enough distance to deny the viewer a true visceral connection. Lingering images of oozing gashes and pummeled, purple flesh invite consideration of their messy aftereffects. Yet the rapid editing and kinetic close-ups of struggling male bodies writhing with bloodlust often feel as slavish as those in any Steven Seagal pulp fest.

The film finds more stable ground in its quieter scenes. Porter shares a cell with John Smith (Val Kilmer), a prison veteran serving a life sentence for not only killing the men who murdered his wife and daughter but every member of their respective immediate familes. Sporting a mossy goatee and notably bloated physique, Kilmer imbues Smith with a cracked sense of serenity. A streak of self-awareness shoots through his tranquil acceptance of past actions and present circumstances, which Kilmer manifests in quirkily pleasurable ways (Smith’s half-hearted stretches in the recreation room read less as actual exercise than as meta-commentaries on the superfluous nature of bodily care). Initially wary of one another, the two men soon strike up an easy rapport, with Smith laying down ground rules for prison survival and Porter providing a sympathetic sounding board for his cellmate’s rueful reflections. Waugh’s grab-bag visual aesthetic settles into calmer, more confident rhythms here, with camera placement highlighting the cramped intimacy of the cell to witty effect: the restricted framing of the two men during a wistful exchange eventually reveals that Smith has been reminiscing while on the toilet.

It is in the character of Lieutenant Jackson, though, that Felon most successfully finds balance between juicy character drama and social critique. The film introduces him slyly, playfully offering his young son Todd (Shawn Prince) some girl advice while dropping him off at school. For all you intertextuality fans out there, Perrineau’s role as the beleaguered father on ABC’s Lost gives added resonance to this tender moment of familial bonding. Soon thereafter, the shock of Jackson hurling a disrespectful inmate into an interrogation room and thrashing him senseless establishes the constructed duality of Jackson’s existence, in which the suburban world of softball games and barbecues coexists in unstable equilibrium with the shadow land of the prison. Channeling his personal fury toward anonymous inmates within a rigid hierarchy of punishment and control allows Jackson to live a satisfied life outside the prison walls, and here Felon insinuates (if never properly excavates) the notion that the broken penal system finds its toxic lifeblood by providing a codified landscape for suffering individuals to unleash their personal demons. His magnanimous eyes erupting into pools of molten fury when challenged, Perrineau suggests the pride, even the delight, Jackson takes in maintaining these parallel universes in such close proximity to one another. Watch the thrill Perrineau takes in the charged formality of a chance supermarket encounter with a new guard and his wife, insipid pleasantries bobbing along the surface of the conversation while electric, secret knowledge buzzes silently between the two men. It’s a succinct and well-observed illustration of the way corruption both controls and infects the seeming innocuousness of the everyday.

Too bad Felon can’t find such nuance within its protagonist. Porter learns to navigate the byzantine corridors of prison life, briefly falling in with a group of dead-eyed skinheads for protection before aligning with Smith. There’s occasional poignancy in watching the blowback of his survival tactics, as when Wade, his scalp shorn in an act of white supremacist initiation, gets a visit from his family. The joy slowly seeps from his face as his wife and son gawk uncomprehendingly at his freshly shaved head. Yet one rarely feels the dark-night-of-the-soul agony that threatens to irrevocably warp Porter from good-hearted husband and father to benumbed, wrathful inmate, because Felon lacks the patience (or courage) to let Porter complete the swan dive into his own dark heart. By providing a clear villain in the form of Jackson, whose increasingly brazen disregard for anyone’s authority but his own swells into full blown tyranny, and adding Smith in the loyal mentor/sidekick role, Porter ultimately fits comfortably into the action hero template of clear-eyed, individualistic heroism. The film’s purported mission to chronicle the effects of incarceration’s casual brutality comes to feel less than genuine, as if implying that all a real man needs to survive a prison stint is an attractive wife and tow-headed child to pine for, and eventually return to. (Is it a coincidence that a film that so sanctifies the notion of heterosexual domesticity barely touches upon the realities of male prison rape?) Felon concludes by solemnly recounting the ever-growing number of citizens currently serving time within the United States, and this last-minute lurch toward sobering topicality sheds the film of almost all moral weight. Life may be tough in the big house, but no worries: you really can go home again. In movie land, at least.

*Photo courtesy Stage 6 Films