Animal Factory (2000)
Steve Buscemi swaps his usual acting stripes for a seat in the director’s chair with Animal Factory. Based on the novel of the same name by Eddie Bunker, the films tells the story of Ron Decker (Edward Furlong), a young man who has been convicted of drug possession. Despite his father’s best efforts, Decker is sent to prison and soon becomes a target for the opportunistic gangs that are incarcerated there. By good fortune, Decker is taken under the wing of veteran, Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe), who shows him the ropes of prison life and tries to keep the young man out of danger. However, why is Copen so eager to help Decker and will he complete his sentence and rebuild his life, or will he be permanently stained by his experiences in prison?
I watched Steve Buscemi’s directorial debut, Trees Lounge (1996), a fair few years back and was thoroughly impressed by that effort. Animal Factory is a very different film and you have to applaud Buscemi for his versatility. However, this is a fairly standard prison drama about one man’s first time behind bars and the impact it has. Furlong channels some of the rebellious youth he had as John Connor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), but here his character is more mature and hardened by the streets. Decker is still a young kid but he has gone off the rails and lost his way, society has caught up with him and enforced a challenging punishment for one so young. For all Furlong’s qualities, it is Willem Dafoe who stands out here, once again demonstrating his chameleon-like ability to immerse himself fully in a myriad of characters. Earl Copen is a seasoned convict who has the respect of guards and prisoners alike, a man who can offer security to those loyal to him but even he does not have the power to pull all the strings in prison.
Animal Factory is a story of survival and friendship and a good cast manages to elevate it from the perilous depths of mediocrity. This is by no means a bad film but when you juxtapose it with other prison dramas such as The Shawshank Redemption (1994) or Murder in the First (1995) it sadly pales in comparison. Animal Factory does have its moments and captures the monotony and uncompromising nature of prison life well. By the end though it doesn’t deliver as strong an impact as the build up suggests it could have done which is a shame.
Verdict: Inferior to Buscemi’s Trees Lounge, Animal Factory is worth a look for the cast but there are better prison dramas out there.