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Stephen Dorff in Ric Roman Waugh’s Felon.

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. Click here to read the rest of Matt Connolly’s review of Felon

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