Ron, who's young, slight, and privileged, is sentenced to prison on marijuana charges. For whatever reason, he brings out paternal feelings in an 18-year prison veteran, Earl Copan, who takes Ron under his wing. The film explores the nature of that relationship, Ron's part in Earl's gang, and the way Ron deals with aggressive cons intent on assault and rape. There's casual racism, too, in the prisoners and the guards, a strike called by Black prisoners, and the nearly omnipresence of hard drugs. Ron's lawyer is working on getting Ron out quickly, Earl has a shot at parole, and death seems to be waiting in the next cell. Will prison turn Ron into an animal? Written by
Steve Buscemi's first feature as director was Trees Lounge, an engaging drama about the bored, alcohol-drenched inhabitants of a small town, and their day-to-day interactions. For his second, Buscemi explores many of the same themes of aimlessness and having too much time on your hands, but changes the setting and tone entirely. Adapting Eddie Bunker's novel of the same name (the real- life ex-con also shares script writing duties with John Steppling), Animal Factory is about as unglamorous as prison drama gets. With a heightened sense of realism, violence and rape lurk at every turn, often happening so quickly that you barely have the chance to comprehend it. Buscemi and Bunker also find time to explore an engaging father-and-son relationship, albeit one taut with tension and distrust.
After receiving an incredibly harsh sentence for drug possession, young Ron Decker (Edward Furlong) is packed off to prison where his youthful looks quickly attracts unwanted attention. Proving himself to be completely ill-equipped to handle the danger he faces, he is taken in by the shaven-headed Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe), who teaches him the ropes and how to spot a threat. A man of little physical prowess, Earl has risen to a position of authority by using his background in law to improve the living and working standards of his fellow inmates. Surrounded by his gang of trusted bruisers (including Danny Trejo, Mark Boone Junior, and The Wire's Chris Bauer), Earl promises to protect the vulnerable Ron. Pondering Earl's true intentions, Ron at first keeps the smiling convict at arm's length, until a bond is formed that just may help the young offender to make it out alive.
By shaping the drama in the most unsensational way imaginable, Buscemi adds the necessary grit to Bunker's knowing words, with many of Bunker's novels taking inspiration from his own time in the slammer. Performances impress across the board, as you would expect from an ensemble taking direction from such a seasoned pro (who also appears). In particular, there are memorable roles for Mickey Rourke, playing Furlong's motor-mouthed, transvestite cell-mate, and, of all people, Tom Arnold, who is unnervingly convincing as a predatory rapist with his eye on Ron. But the film belongs to its two leads. Dafoe brings extra layers to his somewhat sensitive gang leader, and Furlong, one of many promising young actors who emerged in the 90s to disappear into the ether, is particularly effective as the protagonist. Changing his behaviour to suit his surroundings, we see the prison sculpt him into the type of career criminal the system's suppose to prevent. While the matter-of-fact approach prevents it from generating any real momentum - despite an attempted prison-break climax - Animal Factory is quietly powerful in small moments.
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