Animal Factory

Entertaining but strangely pointless prison observation.

Released in 2000, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 19 Jul 2003 by Scott Morris
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It's taken three years for Steve Buscemi's second stab at directing a feature film to reach U.K. cinema screens, and while it's worth seeing if you've been hankering for a prison drama it takes a strange, entirely observational view of life in chokey, and seems to make no attempt to comment on what's unfolding. While involving, on leaving the cinema the point of it all seemed to escape me leaving me wondering exactly what it's message (if any) was.

The Reservoir Dogs connections run rife here, with Buscemi directing an Edward Bunker adaptation of his own book. Bunker was the barely present Mr. Blue in that work, and appears briefly as one of the convicts in this version but the stars of this particular show are Willem Dafoe and Edward Furlong.

Ron Decker (Furlong) is a young lad from a well-off family that's had the misfortune to be busted in the possession of a fair chunk of marijuana with the intent to supply. As it's an election year, the state wants to show how tough they're being on crime in the usual vote-grabbing way and punish poor Ronnie to the fullest extent of the law. He is sent down for a considerable stretch in penitentiary, a worrying experience for a fresh faced, tender young lad in a situation where soap dropping could provide an unwelcome sensation.

The prison he winds up in is also home to one Earl Copen (Dafoe), a long term convict and a noted face in the system. Much like Morgan Freeman's character in The Shawshank Redemption (proving the statutory reference for any review of a prison based drama), he's a man who knows how to get things that aren't strictly allowed, and knows how to influence the guards, doctors and other inmates to make sure life is a little easier for him and his friends.

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After the two are initially introduced by a common acquaintance, the two refreshingly and believably don't instantly become best buddies even after Ron goes to Earl for help a few times, but after Ron takes a chance to warn Earl's posse of an impending guard raid on their illicit hooch supply he becomes accepted into their clique. Earl takes on a convict mentor's role to Ron, helping him find the easiest way to do his time and swinging a bit of influence to get him some of the more palatable jobs in the joint.

And that's really it, for the bulk of the film's short 90 minute running time. This is doing it a grand disservice because it's an enjoyable ninety minutes. The dialogue is crisp and believable (if anyone should know how prisoners really talk it's Bunker, given his lengthy jail record), Dafoe in particular is superb, friendly and intelligent one minute, dangerous and calculating the next. We've not seen much from Bunker worthy of note since his stint as John Conner in T2: Judgement Day but he's more than adequate here, slipping from a position of comparative innocence to a more assuredly ruthless character by the end, with internal conflict and crisis's being discussed with Earl throughout the film in a way that never veers towards sentimentality or away from believability.

Buscemi's direction is perhaps best described as focussed, as it should be and provides the necessary sympathy with Ron's plight and interest in Earl's character. Perhaps it does this too well, as it becomes difficult to work out exactly what Earls interest in helping this lad so much is. Despite at least one moment that veers towards homoeroticism as they play handball (probably not what you think it is, you dirty minded child), Earl is adamant there's no sexual interest which we can only believe as there's no action to suggest otherwise. Maybe Earls recognises some part of himself in the young lad and wants to help him get out of prison while still young, as opposed to his stay in prison which has turned into a career by a string of additional time for minor infractions.

While it's nice to be left with something to think about, there's not enough information imparted for us to really have a clue what to make of it all. Some concession to narrative is in the movie, with talk of an escape between Earl and Ron and crisis inflicted by the unwanted attention of a redneck Buck Rowan (Tom Arnold) in Ron's body cavities. Arnold, despite having a very minor role puts in one of his better performances, thankfully reigning in his trademarked and annoying goofiness and providing a credible threat to young Ron.

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This is a very observational tale, and it seems as though consciously little effort has been made to pass comment on the events that unfold. While it's refreshing to have to actually think about things rather than have a character continually point out 'This is bad, m'kay', it does leave the film with a vacuum where you might except to find the moral of the story. None of the guards are shown as evil monsters abusing their power, none of the inmates are held up as shining examples of humanity, in fact it's all very much like life. Good people and bad people inhabit every walk of life, and prison is apparently no different.

Without the movie passing any comment in prison society, and with only a slight hint at commenting on the effects prison has on it's inmates (Ron gets noticeably angrier and prone to violence by the end of the film, but only in response to threats that would probably have provoked the same response regardless of location), we're left with no real message or point to the film. Well, apart perhaps from 'Don't go to prison, it's bap'.

Like Buffalo Soldiers, this film is certainly enjoyable at the time but on reflection ends up feeling shallower and more pointless. This is perhaps only really an issue after writing about it, and if you'd asked for a snap judgement on leaving the cinema I'd probably have been inclined to like this a little more. Nonetheless..

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.

Steve Buscemi
Cast list:
Willem Dafoe (Earl Copen)
Edward Furlong (Ron Decker)
Seymour Cassel (Lt. Seeman)
Mickey Rourke (Jan the Actress)
Tom Arnold (Buck Rowan)
Edward Bunker (Buzzard)