Animal Factory Review
Steve Buscemi’s second directorial feature is an unassuming yet affecting tale of life behind bars: the factions, the boredom, and the survival techniques. However, what really makes Animal Factory (2000) stand out amongst a slew of other prison films is the stark realism felt throughout, a slow build up in the narrative allowing us to enter this world alongside new inmate Ron Decker (Edward Furlong), experiencing it as he does. With a screenplay adapted by the late Edward Bunker from his own novel, and featuring a lot of his personal experiences, that verisimilitude isn’t surprising. Yet what is unexpected is how the everyday brutality of this masculine environment creeps up on both us and the other inmates, each of them having to keep a constant watch on their own backs before they find a shiv in it.
Decker doesn’t immediately feel this threat when he enters the prison though. He even seems to be adapting well to incarceration, despite the harsh sentence given to him for drug possession and the fact he has left a loving father (John Heard) behind. But when he’s warned by well-respected inmate Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe) that a group is planning to rape him, the ruthlessness of this place suddenly comes screaming into view for both Decker and us. The nonchalant tone with which Earl tells him this is also shocking – just another normal day in the cell block. With Decker suddenly realising how vulnerable he really is, Earl offers to take him under his wing, giving him advice on how to make prison a somewhat bearable place to live whilst offering him much-needed protection. Earl’s knowledge of the law might be able to help Decker stay on the right track and appeal against his unfair sentence too – he just needs to stop Decker turning into yet another violent ‘animal’ churned out by the system before he is given the chance to be released.
Buscemi endeavours to put the everyday lives of the prisoners at the forefront of the film, keeping the realism of Bunker and co-writer John Steppling’s story a high priority. We watch them play sports, working their boring jobs, sitting down for meals together, playing and listening to music, and simply chatting amongst themselves. However Buscemi prevents it from slipping into tedium by keeping a constant underlying sense of danger, this pressure cooker of masculine aggression ready to boil over at any second. When these bursts of violence come forth they happen without warning and are over almost immediately – an inmate stabbing another man in the back, a fight over drugs, and so on. The guards’ attitudes to these moments make them all the more surprising, the bodies we see scattered on the floor after one such incident speaking volumes, especially when we see the prisoners barely bat an eyelid at this. They know they are expendable in here and in life in general – a scathing criticism from Bunker who has seen it all.
Buscemi obviously has a knack for understanding how to direct actors, stepping back to allow these characters to grow naturally within the narrative and draw us into their world. Dafoe is absolutely magnetic as Earl, at some points becoming the whole driving force of the film. With his gentle, gravelly voice he gives a surprisingly restrained portrayal of a convict who has both the guards and the other inmates in the palm of his hand. Yet he also offers hints at the ferocity that has enabled Earl to survive for as long as he has, something he now only needs in the most extreme of situations. Edward Furlong is superb as Decker too, his slight frame and unassuming baby face making it all the more shocking when he does become involved in the violence of the prison. However, the innocence in his eyes is always present, this young man constantly aware of how out of his depth he truly is. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a scene in which he tells Earl about the constant paranoia he feels – how he can’t even trust him despite his offer of help and protection. It is also in this moment that their friendship slowly morphs into something resembling a father-son bond, Dafoe and Furlong’s easy onscreen chemistry adding an odd poignancy as their relationship continues to grow.
With stunning performances, Bunker’s gravitas and Buscemi’s understated direction, it can’t be denied that Animal Factory is a powerful film that shows a side to the prison system rarely seen. However, there is something lacking here to make it truly memorable and gripping. While Buscemi keeps a steady pace throughout in order to let that story flow along easily, when the narrative does suddenly shift gears later on it runs along so quickly that we barely have time to register what is happening. As such the ending is almost a disappointment – a moment that is profound in its own way, but which would have benefited from a greater build up in order for the threat and tension to really be present. At just over an hour and a half long too this is a mere slip of a film that seems to barely scratch the surface of what is going on here, leaving us wanting more. The extras on the Blu-ray disc also leave much to be desired, with no insight into the actual making of the film or Buscemi’s approach to filming Bunker’s acclaimed novel. Still, the witty, informative commentary with both Bunker and Danny Trejo (who plays Vito and co-produced the film) is fun to listen to, while an interview with crime writer Barry Forshaw offers us some interesting background on Bunker as a writer, and how his time in prison inspired stories such as this.
While Animal Factory isn’t as absorbing as you want it to be, and has lost some of its shock factor over the years, what remains is an excellent, effective film with an uncomfortable layer of savagery that lies beneath. Bunker’s superb script and first-hand experiences add an engaging insight to this environment that otherwise wouldn’t be there, something that Buscemi is keen to run with throughout. This is a film about a system that can’t help but produce the kinds of ‘animals’ these men must become in order to survive, as well as a society that doesn’t know how to handle people like Bunker after they have served time. Indeed, Forshaw reveals in his interview that Bunker knew his convict status meant he was, and always would be, an outsider no matter how much he changed. Knowing this makes the ending to Buscemi’s film all the more moving – a moment that offers a glimmer of hope, yet also hints at something infinitely darker.