out of Five
Running time: 90
Actor Steve Buscemi’s second film – a gritty and oddly moving prison drama.
Animal Factory is cult actor Steve Buscemi’s (Reservoir Dogs, Fargo) second film as director after the delightful Trees Lounge. This time round, he’s chosen to adapt fellow Reservoir Dog Eddie Bunker’s semi-autobiographical novel about his time inside. (Both Buscemi and Bunker play small roles in the film).
In fact there’s more than one ex-con involved in the production, as Hispanic character actor Danny Trejo (usually cast as a thug in films such as Desperado and Con Air – both of which also starred Buscemi) also has a role and gets an executive producer credit.
Excessively Harsh Sentence
Edward Furlong plays Ron Decker, a 21-year-old kid from a comfortable
background, who receives an excessively harsh sentence for minor drug
trafficking and finds himself in prison – the ‘Animal Factory’ of the title. Realising his good looks could be something of a liability, he soon ingratiates himself with prison fixer Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe) and finds himself taken under his wing as Copen becomes his mentor and protector.
The prison society is well-portrayed and the relationships between Copen and the various people who help him out (including Seymour Cassel as a prison worker) are believable and often humorous. There are also a number of memorably nasty scenes (one involving the imaginative use of a toothbrush as a deadly weapon) that serve to emphasise the sudden brutality of the prison environment and elicit sympathy for the main characters.
The cast is top-notch, and Buscemi shows great skill with his actors, in particular, drawing a pair of surprisingly impressive performances from the very last two people you’d expect: Mickey Rourke and Tom Arnold, both of whom are almost unrecognisable. There’s also sterling support work from John Heard as Furlong’s father.
Standout Performance By Dafoe
Truly though, it’s Dafoe’s film – he’s better here than he’s been in a very long time, investing his character with a quiet dignity and an underlying sense of decency. There’s a superb scene where Earl tries to explain his affection for Decker, and you realise that the film is actually an understated and oddly moving platonic love story.
In fact, if the film has a fault, it’s that Furlong’s character lacks any real depth, and consequently it’s hard to see what exactly Copen sees in him, unless it’s a shadow of his younger self.
To sum up, then, this is well-worth seeing for its superb acting. It also has an excellent score by John Lurie. Clearly, Buscemi’s stint as director on a couple of episodes of C4’s late-night prison drama Oz was time well-spent. Recommended.