What would you do?
A young man, just coming into his own, with a growing business and a loving young family, wakes beside his fiancee one night with the realization that someone has invaded their home. It all happens so fast: he tracks the burglar, follows him out of the house with a baseball bat, and seeing the man going for what he thinks is a weapon, he unleashes a killer blow to the back of the man's head. The burglar, as it turns out, had no weapon; his only take, the homeowner's wallet. And because the killing blow happens outside the home, the young man is charged with murder.
Wade Porter (Stephen Dorff)has apparently never been in trouble with the law before, past what most of us have; and he enters the world of jail scared and confused. His fiancee, angry with the system,sticks with him (a good performance by Marisol Nichols), shielding their young son from the worst of the truth, and keeping contact going with Wade, which is the only thing that sustains him in his journey through the system. He is able to bargain the charge down to manslaughter, but still is given time; and complicates his life even further by becoming involved in a scuffle on the bus going to prison,adding more time to his sentence.
Arrival at the prison plunges him into a dark world where survival is all. There are rival gangs, and no one can be counted on as an ally. Wade only wants to do his time and get out. But coloring the entire prison existence is a pervasive corruption amongst the prison guards, with one guard in particular as ringleader (Harold Perrineau, easily recognizable to LOST fans, in a gritty performance as a guard who turned sadistic). As Lt. Jackson, this head guard has a major problem with prison inmates and runs bets on who will win yard fights without doing anything to stop them until he steps in himself by shooting the offender he likes the least - not to kill, but only to maim.
Wade's fortunes change just a little when he is given a new cellmate - a lifer who has been moved to this new facility as a last-ditch effort by the warden in his previous prison to keep the man out of further trouble. This new cellmate, John Smith (Val Kilmer), comes with a history of respect that has permeated the prison system. He is legendary for having murdered the families of the men who killed his own family, and the other prisoners leave him alone. Wade is initially apprehensive of his new cellmate, but the two become guarded friends over the course of time, and John schools Wade in how to survive.
The prime mover in the second half of this drama, however, is Lt. Jackson's maniacal obsession with taking out his life's frustrations on the prisoners under his control. He also controls most of the guards; the one holdout, a young recent hire who has come from the military, watches Lt. Jackson's cruel practices with a pained eye but only makes a move when the prisoners, under Wade and John's influence, make a stand against him. And what Lt. Jackson doesn't know is that Wade's fiancee, with damning evidence provided by Wade, has gone to the FBI with what's going on in the prison.
This was a powerful movie; very sad, also. I found myself aching for Wade, who should have never been in the situation in which he found himself. The prison experience was presented with the foreboding that it probably is in reality; the gangs hang with their own, they battle with rival gangs, and discipline is meted out amongst each other. It was a rough movie to watch, but very absorbing; and all performances - including a small but great role by an old favourite, the excellent actor Sam Sheppard - were outstanding. Val Kilmer looks a bit like the Big Lebowski, with a bushy goatee, but plays his don't-look-at-me-or-I'll-killya role to perfection.
Not a big-marquee movie, but well done and fast-paced.