Arrow Video: Animal Factory (2000) - Reviewed

Brooklyn, New York based actor Steve Buscemi remains one of the distinctive character actors in modern film.  Often appearing in Coen Brothers’ films and sporting memorable performances in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs as well as Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World, the actor with his wrinkly face and crooked teeth remains an instantly recognizable figure in movies.  

Like most actors flexing their skills in the entertainment industry, Buscemi also tried his hand at film directing, having directed four features in total over the last ten years in addition to occasional television work.  Often helming character driven dramas involving dark humor, his second feature Animal Factory stands out as something of an outlier in his film directing oeuvre for it’s content and overall approach. 

A prison movie at heart, the film is an ensemble drama primarily concerning Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe), a clean shaven miscreant and veteran con man, who takes newly admitted youngen Ron Decker (Edward Furlong) under his protective wing to help the kid survive his prison time.  Based upon the novel by former convict turned screenwriter Edward Bunker and co-produced by Danny Trejo who also stars, Animal Factory is a compelling yet modestly sized life-in-prison drama with fine as well as surprising performances across the board.

Closer in kin to Don Siegel’s Riot in Cell Block 11 than The Shawshank Redemption, Animal Factory is that rare prison picture less concerned with longterm goals than simply presenting the daily struggle to survive the life with danger lurking in plain daylight around every corner.  In other words, time simply disappears in this world for the prisoners as one never knows when they line up for roll call which moment will be their last.

Buscemi’s direction isn’t particularly technically skilled but it’s serviceable and largely an arena for his actors to show off their abilities.  Much of the film is shot on location within real prison grounds, though the most alien aspect of the piece will undoubtedly by actor/musician John Lurie’s jazz/avant-garde soundtrack.  Having heard Lurie’s offbeat music to his already offbeat television show Fishing with John, hearing it set to a prison drama was and still is unusual but I digress.  

Dafoe as always steals the show and brings a formidable command and danger to Copen who, underneath his violent exterior, still has something resembling a heart with compassion.  Furlong, if you saw his skinhead in American History X, more or less plays the same overconfident youth unaware of the danger to himself in a system ready to eat unassuming youths like him alive.  Among the film’s genuine surprises are Mickey Rourke as, get ready for it, a transvestite donning makeup and painted fingernails, working against his tough guy image later seen in The Wrestler.  The biggest surprise of course goes to Tom Arnold as a particularly brutal inmate who sets his salacious sights on Furlong’s arrival.  Ordinarily a comic actor, Arnold doesn’t overplay the part and exudes a real sense of previously unseen menace, making his turn all the more startling.

Though the ending closes on something of a quieter note than I was expecting, I was captivated by Animal Factory, a film which illustrates even demonic figures like Earl Copen still have the capacity for compassion and that often the prison system itself may in fact be contributing to violent crime rather than deterring it.  While not as brutal or unflinching as some of the other prison dramas that have come and gone, Buscemi’s Animal Factory as it stands is a welcome contribution to the subgenre which tries to imbue human warmth to characters who at face value are all but bereft of. 

What’s more, Dafoe’s performance navigating Furlong’s character and ourselves through the prison is wholly compelling and remains proof positive Dafoe is one of the truly great actors of our generation.  From playing Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ to Bobby Peru in Wild at Heart, the man can do anything including but not limited to convincing viewers that a dangerous and frequently violent prisoner like Earl Copen can and often do have a heart.

- Andrew Kotwicki