Animal Factory Review
Ron Decker (Edward Furlong) doesn't belong in a maximum security prison. A middle class white boy arrested for dealing marijuana, he's been made an example of by an image-minded judge in an election year and sentenced to five years hard labour in a jail populated by hardened convicts. With his boyish good looks and his lack of friends inside, it's a good bet he'll end up as someone's punk. His cellmate Jan (Mickey Rourke) has been doing that for so long, he now wears women's clothes and make-up so he looks the part. It's Ron's incredible good fortune that he catches the eye of Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe), the shaven-headed hard case who runs the yard through a combination of toughness, brains and eighteen years experience of working the system. Earl takes Ron under his wing, gives him his protection and shows him how to survive inside.
As most moviegoers have already done plenty of time in the company of Paul Newman, Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, Tim Robbins, Robert Redford and Steve McQueen (to name but a few), making a prison movie that feels fresh and vital is no small challenge. The second film by actor Steve Buscemi, Animal Factory meets this challenge with a keenly observed, matter-of-fact take on prison life. This is a film more about the details than the story, which bears a passing resemblance to that of The Shawshank Redemption. That it's so convincing may be down to novelist and co-scriptwriter Edward Bunker, Buscemi's co-star in Reservoir Dogs (he was Mr Blue) and a former career criminal. He was once the youngest inmate in San Quentin so he knows what he's talking about.
Animal Factory makes you feel like you're seeing the reality of a tough jail rather than an exaggeration for the sake of melodrama, thrills or preaching. Life for these men mostly consists of sitting in a squalid cell, working menial jobs and making their own entertainment in the yard. Drugs are the most popular form of entertainment and are easily available, Earl himself being an addict and the chief supplier for his cellblock. Violence is occasional and brief but no less brutal for it. Grudges are settled with a beating or a knife between the shoulderblades. Homosexuality is an accepted fact of life and rape something every convict watches out for. Racism is rife, whites and blacks rarely mixing. Earl and his black counterpart maintain an uneasy truce between their gangs and try to keep the hatred of their foot soldiers under control. Whether or not they like each other, they're both smart enough to know that a race riot will give the guards an excuse to storm in, guns blazing.
The relationship between Earl and Ron is interestingly handled. At first Ron wonders why the older man should give a damn about him and is wary that sex may be expected. To Earl, while his feelings are not exactly fatherly, nor is it about sex. It's a chance to care about someone. Earl's been in prison without a woman for much of his adult life and affection is as much a basic human need as sexual release. In an odd way, though the characters aren't gay, Animal Factory is a love story and a quietly touching one.
As Earl, Willem Dafoe gives possibly the best performance of his career, creating a complex and rounded human being, an intelligent, decent and even tender man who will nevertheless do what it takes to survive, from drug-dealing to cold-blooded murder. Furlong is more or less playing the same innocent-corrupted he played in American History X but it's a role he's effective in. Buscemi fills out the cast with well-chosen character actors. John Heard is touching as Ron's father, who realises too late what he's done to his son by ignoring him. The comedian Tom Arnold is downright scary as a redneck rapist and I didn't even recognise Mickey Rourke as Ron's transvestite cellmate. Buscemi himself plays a prison official while Bunker has a small role as a convict.
The prison system doesn't come off well, as you might expect in a film written by an ex-con. There are guards who care, wearily so, but others are indifferent or patronising. Two officers half-heartedly advise Ron to report any inmate who shows an unwelcome interest in him when they must know that to snitch, even on a rapist, would be a death sentence. The story's message, as hinted by the title, is that prison takes wayward young men and turns them into hardened criminals, an argument put forward by those who oppose prison sentences. It's certainly true that Ron should never have been sent there but this could be blamed on courtroom politics and the dubious prohibition of marijuana which makes criminals out of many people who are otherwise law-abiding and no danger to anyone. On the other hand, whatever Bunker and Buscemi's intentions, it's hard to feel that most of the characters in this film belong anywhere but in jail.
Still, Animal Factory is thought-provoking stuff and one of the most intelligent and gripping dramas so far this year. It was a shock to find out it's sat on a shelf in the UK for nearly three years.