There have been many fine films set in prisons, and it's easy to see why it is a tempting location for directors and screenwriters. A jail provides a self-contained society with its own rules, fascinating back stories and opportunities for acts of great depravity and great humanity. Felon takes the "everyman in hell" approach and invites the viewer to imagine how they would cope if they ever found themselves on the wrong side of a cell door.
Stephen Dorff plays Wade Porter, a regular Joe with a thriving construction company, a pretty fiancée and a young son. His life is destroyed when he accidentally kills a burglar and is charged with murder. In prison, he finds himself in a brutal world where survival means jettisoning the person you were on the outside and learning how to deal out brutality yourself. Caught up in a violent incident in the bus on the way to jail, Porter ends up in a high security unit, sharing a cell with John Smith (Val Kilmer), a notorious mass murderer. Despite Porter's understandable misgivings about his new roommate, the two form a tentative friendship, with Smith dishing out weirdly avuncular advice on prison life. Meanwhile, Porter tries to endure the daily violence and hang on to his relationship with his fiancée, Laura (Marisol Nichols). She struggles valiantly for a while to conceal her disgust at the person he is becoming and her frustration at having to shoulder all the responsibility for their son.
Parts of the film are loosely based on allegations of prisoner mistreatment at the California State Prison Corcoran in the 1990s - eight officers were indicted for civil rights violations after newspaper and television investigations, although the charges were later dropped. The guards in Felon operate as little more than another gang in the prison, keeping their upper hand with sadistic violence, forcing prisoners to fight so they can bet on the results, and shooting them with rubber bullets if they refuse to co-operate.
It is to the film's credit that despite their brutality, the guards are not portrayed simply as one-dimensional monsters. Harold Perrineau (who spent six years playing an inmate in HBO's prison drama Oz, to which this film owes something of a debt) gives the best performance in the film as their leader, Lieutenant Jackson. Outside the prison he is a doting father and a pillar of the community; inside he is a sadistic bully. Perrineau exudes an unsettling air of menace whenever he is on screen, but there are moments when he lets you see clearly through it to the toll the job has taken on Jackson. Nerves stretched to breaking point by years of tension, he is as dehumanised by the violence that is part of his daily life as the men on the other side of the bars.
"Why do you think the average life expectancy of a prison officer is 55?" he snarls to Porter at one point. There is a neat parallel to Porter's story in that of Officer Collins (Nate Parker), a clean-cut rookie guard who also learns the hard way what is necessary to survive on the inside. Both men are faced with a battle between their desire to hold on to their humanity and the need to get through another day in one piece - and to keep the respect and protection of their peers.
In the end, it's a little hard to know what point the film wants to make. It is certainly violent, and at times it seems that the director Ric Roman Waugh is a little too enamoured with the excitement of bone-crunching brawling. It is also bleak - Porter is sucked inexorably into the system as his life on the outside recedes and he becomes indistinguishable from the men around him. Yet in the final 20 minutes the tone changes abruptly from gritty realism to soft focus hope.
After spending most of the film painting the lack of loyalty, racial divisions and mutual suspicion that characterise the relationships between inmates, there's an "I am Spartacus" moment that really doesn't ring true. But there are a couple of scenes towards the end that are genuinely moving. Felon won't be joining films like Cool Hand Luke and The Shawshank Redemption in the canon of great prison dramas. It doesn't have enough resonance for that, and the ending feels contrived. But it is an intermittently powerful film which, in spite of all the brutality it depicts, has great faith in human nature.