Dir. Steve Buscemi, US, 2000, 90 mins
Willem Dafoe, Edward Furlong, Seymour Cassel, Mickey Rourke, Steve Buscemi, Tom Arnold
Steve Buscemi has fashioned a powerful yet conventional drama that depicts life in prison with skilful humour. Novelist and screenwriter, Edward Bunker, has gone from penning Mystery Train, via Mr. Blue in Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, to adapting his very own prison story, Animal Factory.
He pops up in a cameo role as a prison warden (as he did in Mystery Train), but it's his presence as an advisor that makes his role in the movie so invaluable. Bunker has himself been a prison inmate, and it shows; his real life criminal activities make him the ideal candidate to depict how life really is behind bars. Steve Buscemi uses this knowledge to great effect and provides us with a healthy dose of gritty realism, as the feel of daily prison life is well captured. The film moves between prison drama and buddy movie as Earl Copan, a tough lifer who runs the whole block (played with usual gusto by Willem Dafoe) protectively befriends and acts as mentor to young Ron Decker (Edward Furlong), a good-looking, privileged, middle-class young kid, just out of his teenage years, who needs to know the ropes to survive. The exploration of the nature of this relationship is central to the story.
Earl is seemingly attracted to Ron's intelligence and innocence but determines to keep it pure and platonic. However, Earl clearly loves Ron and proves it when he has a shot at parole but will give it all up to help his new friend. Earl has great connections both in and outside, and has the ability to make or break any situation, and to obtain key jobs for his friends.
The film most explodes on the screen when it tackles the casual racism of guards and inmates alike, where gangs are broken down according to ethnic groups - Black, Puerto Rican, or white. There is also the almost omnipresence of hard drugs that are used as power and currency inside. This all works principally due to the on screen chemistry between Dafoe and Furlong.
Having cut his imprisonment teeth directing US TV prison drama Oz, Buscemi has directed his follow up to Trees Lounge with some vigour, and never shirks from the sexual undercurrents or the issues surrounding life inside. We see life through the eyes of Ron - a fish out of water - and the whole prison atmosphere of hostility, danger and inhumanity is fully captured. The film's message of small time criminals being turned into hard-edged lifers, and therefore making a mockery of the idea that penitentiaries are correctional facilities, is heard loud and clear. So, too, the horrors of prison life.
The performances of the two main characters are solid and believable but there are also interesting supporting roles for Mickey Rourke as Jan, a jaded yet flamboyant drag queen who provides us with many a wry moment, while Tom Arnold pops up as an aggressive rapist con, the menacing Buck Rowan. Seymour Cassel plays the sympathetic Lt. Seeman - a guard who's seen it all. John Lurie as ever provides a really attractive bluesy score.
All in all a bleak yet surprisingly warm and fulfilling drama, as far removed from The Shawshank Redemption or The Green Mile as one could possibly get, confirming Buscemi as a talented filmmaker.