Animal Factory, 2000.
Directed by Steve Buscemi.
Starring Willem Dafoe, Edward Furlong, Danny Trejo, Mickey Rourke, Tom Arnold, Mark Boone Junior, Edward Bunker, John Heard, and Steve Buscemi.
A privileged young man is sent to prison for drug dealing and falls under the wing of a lifer who takes a shine to him.
Sometimes the planets are in alignment, the right cards are drawn from the deck and there is a film that gets made with what seems to be the perfect collaboration of cast and crew that you know is going to produce something worthy of your time, and in 2000 Steve Buscemi (Reservoir Dogs/Con Air) directed Animal Factory, his second full-length feature. But what makes Animal Factory a little different from a lot of other prison dramas is that it was written by Edward Bunker, an ex-con-turned-actor (he played Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs and also pops up here), and was based on his novel of the same name. It also features fellow ex-con-turned-actor Danny Trejo (Machete/Heat) alongside a host of familiar tough guys – including a nearly unrecognisable Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler) as a transvestite convict – that serve the film well and give it a real sense of authenticity.
As with a lot of prison movies there isn’t really a whole lot of plot here and instead we get a solid 94 minutes of characters interacting and laying out how to survive in the penal system before the film culminates with an ending that isn’t quite as explosive or as cut-and-dry as the setup would have you wanting but it does at least show the humanity that can lie beneath the surface of hardened criminals. Edward Furlong (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) plays Ron Decker, a 21-year-old from a seemingly privileged home with no obvious reason to go off the rails but go off the rails he does, charged with dealing drugs and sent to prison where he’ll serve time amongst some of the toughest cons in the country, and it is a perfect bit of casting as Furlong was still very boyish looking and he sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the ensemble of tattooed and muscled convicts as a potential victim for anyone who takes a fancy to him. Luckily Decker is taken under the wing of Earl Copen, again perfectly cast as Willem Dafoe (Platoon/Spider-Man) exudes understated menace as Copen calmly and methodically works the system in his favour and seems able to make anything happen without making too much of a fuss, and Decker is soon made a part of Copen’s gang, which also includes Vito (Trejo).
The main plot of Animal Factory is that Decker wants Copen’s help in trying to shorten his sentence as Copen has knowledge of the law and also works in the admin department in the prison, which means he can doctor certain documents under the pretence of spell-checking, but this idea plays second fiddle to watching Decker try and survive life in prison as many of the other inmates take a fancy to his fresh-faced looks and Copen tries his best to educate the younger convict on how and when is the best way to make your move, both in the prison and in trying to appeal his case. There is also an underlying theme of semi-predatory behaviour from Copen as he admits he has taken a shine to Decker but not in a sexual way, although his threat to sodomise Decker if he gets out only to get caught again has more than an element of truth to it despite the humour with which it is delivered, and it is these deeper, somewhat ambiguous traits that make Copen such a compelling character and the scenes in which Dafoe is dishing out advice to Decker are what really drive the film forward.
With an authentic feel coming from the cast and Steve Buscemi’s minimal direction giving the film the gritty edge of a ‘70s movie, Animal Factory is certainly an interesting and entertaining film but one does feel that the action – although brutal for the most part – could be a little punchier in places and the ending could have been a bit more satisfying than the clichéd escape attempt that we got. Nevertheless, the presence of Danny Trejo and Edward Bunker alongside an on-his-game Willem Dafoe in a prison movie is something to treasure and, along with a 20-minute featurette about Edward Bunker and his career change from criminal to writer/actor, this relatively low-key release from Arrow Video is something of a rough-around-the-edges gem and one of the most convincing prison movies you’ll ever see.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★