Dark Country actor Thomas Jane’s first venture behind the camera as director, and although the final product is a bit muddy and perplexing, it also creates an atmosphere of impenetrable mental fog and noxious delirium that’s in itself a success, even if the whole thing amounts to a big question mark. Jane has already proved to be a stalwart action hero, charismatic leading man and talented performer (anyone raising their hand to disagree with me gets a copy of Mark Pellington’s I Melt With You hucked across the classroom right at their head). Working off a script from veteran writer Tab Murphy, Jane concocts what can only be described as a Twilight Zone episode on opiates, with a hint of sketchy Midnite Movie added for flavour. Does it work? Yes and no. The story is nearly indecipherable except to someone glued to the screen inches away, kept abreast of every minute plot shift and disorienting, mumbled bit of dialogue. Jane and Lauren German play a couple driving from somewhere to somewhere, who encounter a freaky, whacked out hitchhiker (Chris Browning) somewhere around the Nevada desert. He’s bloodied up something fierce, babbling on about nothing and from the moment he arrives, their turns turns dour. It’s anyone’s guess what goes on from there… a dead body they must contend with, a suspicious state trooper (nice Ron Perlman cameo) on their tail, flashbacks to a weird encounter at a desolate roadside diner, ever creeping fog that seems to have followed Jane over from Stephen King’s The Mist to wreak more havoc, and so it goes. Plot is of little importance to him as a director though, and instead he seems more intent on clouding up the viewer’s perception of events until it’s more like a shadowy fever dream full of dead ends and few answers. An atmosphere piece with a logic tank that’s run dry, but succeeds in whipping up a neat nightmarish road trip through confusion and paranoia, if not much else.
Felon is a bitter,and tragic prison drama that’s packed with wrenching injustice, simmering anger and caged animal violence. Loaded with the kind of tough guy elements which make prison films exciting (check out Lock Up with Stallone), it’s also has a tender side brought forth by its extremely thoughtful and well written script, which explores ideas that are both hard to swallow and very sad. Stephen Dorff, a guy who already has the gritty look as soon as he walks into a frame, plays Wade Porter, a simple family man who is just starting out at life along with his wife (Marisol Nichols). Their hopes and dreams turn into a nightmare, however, when a violent intruder breaks into their home one night. Wade strikes out in defence of himself and his wife, accidentally killing the criminal. Because of the backwards ass way the States run things, he is accused of manslaughter and sentenced to serve out jail time. He is then thrown into the dog pit, literally and figuratively. The penitentiary he is sent to is run by sadistic and corrupt Lt. Jackson (Harold Perrineau) along with his brutal enforcer Sgt. Roberts (Nick Chinlund). Jackson organizes vicious fight club style matches between the inmates, totally off the books and beyond any correctional legislations. Wade is forced to adapt, adjust and bring out monstrous aspects within himself to survive, and make it through his sentence with both his life and humanity intact. It’s not an easy turn of events to watch unfold onscreen, but necessary in the sense that this probably happens quite frequently to people in real life, and should be seen. The only solace Wade finds is with his gruff, veteran cell mate John Smith (Val Kilmer) a lifer who once went on a massacre of revenge against individuals who murdered his family. Smith is his guiding light, steering him through the hellish carnage of what he’s forced to do and helping him to keep the candle of compassion alive within him, never losing sight of what is essential in his fight to claim his life once more. Kilmer is a force that will knock you flat in this role, an old bull with dimming fury in his eyes, a man with a bloody history that has forged the weary dog we see in the film. Late in the film he has an extended monologue to Wade, giving him both blessing and advice with some of the most truthful and affecting gravity Kilmer has showed in his career. The writer/director, who appears to be primarily a stuntman, should be commended for such a script, that could have easily been a straight up prison flick without the pathos that drips off its heartstrings. We as an audience view this painfully and prey nothing like this ever happens to us or anyone we know, hoping to see a light of hope at the end of the dark tunnel for Wade. I won’t spoil it, but it’s worth the hit that your emotions will take while watching, and there is hard earned catharsis to be had, and penance for the characters you want to shoot in the face along the way. The extends to brilliant work from Chris Browning, Anne Archer, Nate Parker, Johnny Lewis and a fantastic Sam Shepherd as another seasoned convict. This was correct to video as I recall, which is a crime. It’s up there as my favourite prison set film that I’ve ever seen, a soul bearing piece.