After seeing Steve Buscemi's sophomore directorial effort, Animal Factory (following 1996's Trees Lounge), I nearly reconsidered choosing film criticism as a career path. For the first hour of this film, it seemed the way to go was to become a convict. (By the way, ma, they don't call 'em inmates in the pen, they call 'em convicts.)
Puffy faced Edward Furlong plays young Ron Decker, a new convict in the pen. He's small, skinny and smart -- an ideal candidate to become some solid's girlfriend. Fortunately, he is befriended by Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe, sporting a clean, bald head) and his gang of old-timers. This more or less prevents the kid from getting raped, though Earl admits that he wouldn't have bothered if the kid was ugly.
Prison life seems pretty swell at first. There are no women, but the men all pat each other on the back, are loyal to their friends and call each other "brother." They get three squares a day and if they've been inside long enough, the guards give them freebies like steak dinners, extra packs of cigarettes, or porno magazines. Life isn't so bad on the inside as long as you got friends.
I was all set to phone up my boss at filmcritic.com and hand in my resignation when Tom Arnold showed up on the scene as a hillbilly scumbag whose first act of malice is to suck on his own finger and shove it up Furlong's bum. Suddenly, prison life didn't sound so lovely anymore. This is before the razor action in a later sequence where one of our main characters gets sliced up pretty good. Violence can spring up at any time in the joint.
This adaptation of Edward Bunker's novel knows the prison lingo backwards and forwards. Bunker was in prison himself, and it shows. (He's now a fine, hard-boiled novelist and played Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs, opposite Steve Buscemi.) The grimy cellblocks and hallways, filthy mattresses, and lousy food all seem to have been well researched here, present and correct. Buscemi fills his film with paranoia, often inserting shots of convicts looking over their shoulder or shifting their eyes.
Buscemi the filmmaker trips up by turning the prison playground into a showcase for his actors. Dafoe and Furlong are excellent in the lead roles, thinking their way through each scene. Thing is, they're surrounded by people who are sinking their teeth into their roles (and scenery) so much that each scene plays like a vaudeville number.
The spotlight is on Mickey Rourke as a mealy-mouthed drag queen, then on Tom Arnold's aforementioned renegade hick, then on Seymour Cassel's "guard who's seen it all" character. Instead of blending into a fine ensemble, each actor's shining presence only serves to remind us that this is only a movie. We're not in a jailhouse; we're in a talent show for the best and brightest in the "Intense Character Actor" category.
It's entertaining, sure, but it destroys the authenticity. Suddenly, I realize I'm not really in a prison. I'm in an independent film directed by Steve Buscemi.
As though driving the nails into his own coffin, Buscemi even steals the 360-degree pan from Reservoir Dogs in one shot. Tarantino's film was filled with pop cultural references, reminding us that we were watching a movie, and it worked in that context. But Buscemi, instead of going for cinema verite realism, throws in this flashy camera move. It's pretty tactless, here.
These blunders don't kill the movie. The relationship between Dafoe and Furlong is touching, drifting through a no man's land between being father/son or lovers without sexual congress. Dafoe schools the kid on the prison ropes. Furlong keeps his eyes and ears open. While I found it hard to believe that a boy as pretty as Eddie Furlong wouldn't wind up as someone's dinner, I struggled to suspend my disbelief because there are some fine, subtle glances between these guys that resemble love. I'm a sucker for romance, even in prison.
This key plot point treads on the verge of sentimentality, but the grand finale lapses into the familiar terrain of Prison Movie 101. Of course we have the obligatory "let's get out of prison" bit. Buscemi and Bunker (whose novel is terrific, by the way -- much grittier than the film) blow their opportunity to leave well enough alone.
Animal Factory is rarely boring, though. For all my qualms about Buscemi's directorial flourishes and self-conscious moments for the actors, he's made a movie that at least cares about developing those characters within their environment. At least it observes these people in their daily routine, takes it's time to let us get to know Earl, Ron and all the rest. It's not as raw as it would like to be, but it's sure got character.
I tell ya this much, ma: Steve Buscemi has given us a solid.
Animals workin' the Factory.
Run time: 94 mins
In Theaters: Tuesday 1st August 2000
Distributed by: Silver Nitrate
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 82%
Fresh: 27 Rotten: 6
IMDB: 6.6 / 10
Director: Steve Buscemi
Starring: Willem Dafoe as Earl Copen, Edward Furlong as Ron Decker, Danny Trejo as Vito, Mark Boone Junior as Paul Adams, Seymour Cassel as Lt. Seeman, Mickey Rourke as Jan the Actress, Tom Arnold as Buck Rowan, John Heard as James Decker, Chris Bauer as Bad Eye, Rockets Redglare as Big Rand, Jake La Botz as Jesse, Mark Engelhardt as T.J., Edward Bunker as Buzzard, Victor Pagan as Psycho Mike, Ernest Harden Jr. as Richland, Afemo Omilami as Captain Midnight, Michael Buscemi as Mr. Herrell, J.C. Quinn as Ivan McGhee, Steven Randazzo as Jacob Horvath, Mark Webber as Tank
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