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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Animal Factory
Animal Factory
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Review by Gil Jawetz | posted January 13, 2001 | E-mail the Author
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THE STRAIGHT DOPE:
Actor Steve Buscemi has appeared in a wide variety of films during the last fifteen years, from the groundbreaking drama Parting Glances (1986), where he played a man with AIDS to Quentin Tarantino's first film Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Michael Bay's shlock-o-rama Armageddon (1998). With his second directorial effort, Animal Factory (2000), he proves that he'd like to cover as wide a range from behind that camera as he has in front of it. His first feature as director was the personal, reportedly somewhat autobiographical Trees Lounge (1996), in which he played the lead role of a Long Island shlub living over the titular bar. Animal Factory, a grim prison drama, comes not from his own life experiences, but from those of Edward Bunker, the author of the book on which it's based. Bunker, who should be familiar to Reservoir Dogs fans as the short-lived Mr. Blue, is an ex-con who spent decades behind the bars of rough prisons like San Quentin. Actor Danny Trejo, also an ex-con whose rough face and voice almost always seem to land him prison roles, spent time in the pen with Bunker in the 60's. He brought the book and a screenplay version of it to Buscemi, with whom he had worked on Con Air. Bunker, who has a small role in Animal Factory, and Trejo, who plays one of the leads, ultimately served as producers, ensuring that the film would be as authentic as possible.

Trees Lounge was subtle and allowed its cast space to create complex, realistic characters. In Animal Factory Buscemi has only taken a small role for himself, leaving the performance duties to yet another impressive talent-heavy ensembles: Willem Dafoe's Earl is a long-time inmate. He's the kind of prisoner who is allowed to type up his own incident reports. Edward Furlong is very effective as Ron, the naive young man convicted of selling marijuana and sent up to set an example in an election year. He is not suited for prison life at first and grows to trust Earl as a mentor. Earl is a self-educated jailhouse lawyer who gives Ron good legal advice. What Earl gets in return is less concrete. The film sets up an interesting dynamic between these two. The sexual politics of prison are illustrated early on. Through any number of scenarios inmates can be branded as punks or kids. An officer warns Ron that Earl might just be earning his trust to set him up for rape and domination. In fact, the threat of sexual dominance seems to be the main organizing factor in the social construct of the prison in Animal Factory. Very rarely is anyone threatened with violence over money or drugs. Instead sex is used as a weapon and the prison is filled with a dangerous energy as inmates constantly have to look out that they don't change positions from aggressor to victim.

Lots of fine actors fill out the cast. Trejo and Mark Boone Jr (Buscemi's partner from the East Village theater days) round out Earl 's gang. They convey a toughness but also an affection among themselves that lives somewhere between respect and love. Seymour Cassel plays a prison overseer who allows Earl special liberties with the mix of kindness and pity at which he excels. Mickey Rourke is totally unrecognizable as Jan, a transvestite who shares a cell with Ron. His performance is the opposite of glamour as he has removed his bridge with two front teeth (presumably the originals were lost in a boxing match or a bar brawl long ago) and has caked so much garish make-up on that he looks like a cross between The Rock and Rocky Horror's Dr. Frankenfurter. John Heard and Tom Arnold appear briefly as Ron's frustrated dad and a sinister hillbilly inmate, respectively.

A lot of prison lingo is tossed around and some of it may go over the heads of the audience. It's ok, though. The film feels authentic and the characters are very sympathetic. When someone like Ron, convicted of a non-violent crime, has to become tough to survive prison, the judicial system considers him a threat to society and prolongs the sentence. That sort of self-feeding hypocrisy is rampant in our court and prison system and Animal Factory really brings it home.

If Animal Factory has a flaw it's that it never really reaches a peak. It shows the dehumanizing conditions of the prison and the developing bond between Earl and Ron is interesting and unusual. The film itself, however, doesn't ever really kick into high gear. But that may be part of it's design. Buscemi seems most interested in the moments between the high drama: Inmates playing hand-ball, loaded stares exchanged across a busy yard, a strange torch-song serenade at an inmate talent show. The undercurrent of sexual (and also racial) tension never really bursts to the surface, but maybe that's appropriate in a place where life never really climaxes. It just drones on and on and on...

VIDEO:
The video quality is good. There are a couple of specks on the print but the anamorphic transfer is solid. Phil Parmet's cinematography is inventive given such a claustrophobic environment.

AUDIO:
The film is presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0. The sound design is subtle and the clanks and clonks of jail doors are really effective. The 5.1 track has more resonance, but both sound good. Some dialog is a bit tough due to thick accents and hushed tones. John Lurie's score is terrific. He sounds a bit like he's jealous that his old buddy Jim Jarmusch picked RZA to score Ghost Dog but the mix of Fishing WIth John (which featured Dafoe early on) style horns with hip-hop beats works well.

EXTRAS:
Animal Factory features a nice number of extras. A selection of short interviews with Buscemi, Dafoe, Furlong, and Rourke are interesting if not totally revealing. Rourke is especially strange with his missing teeth, cowboy hat, and long fingernails. The commentary track features producer/writer Bunker and producer/actor Trejo chatting together about the genesis of the film and about their own prison experiences. They point out cast members that they know from the time they served and they chuckle at the prison in-jokes. It's definitely a one of a kind commentary. In fact, some of the most uncomfortable moments in the film elicit laughter from these guys who really know the score.

There are also cast and filmmaker bios and trailer.

FINAL THOUGHTS:
Animal Factory may not redefine the prison drama but, at a lean 94 minutes, it provides some gritty insight into a world and into some characters that, under different circumstances, could have been anyone of us. After being run through the mill they are hardened and it's easy to see how they can never go back to innocence again.

Gil Jawetz is a graphic designer, video director, and t-shirt designer. He lives in Brooklyn.

E-mail Gil at buskerdog@yahoo.com
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