Thursday, September 17, 2009

Animal Factory (2000)

Animal Factory (2000) 94 Minutes. Steve Buscemi, Director.

Animal Factory tells the story of Ron Decker, played by Edward Furlong, a young felon sent to prison for two years after being convicted for dealing in large quantities of marijuana, and his relationship with Earl Copen, a long term convict, played by Willem DaFoe. Decker is clearly in over his head, being sent to a prison full of hardened criminals, while he is inexperienced and naive. He falls in with Earl Copen after a short while and is taken in by Copen and his friends, and struggles to adapt to prison life.

Edward Furlong gives a good performance as Ron Decker. He comes of as inexperienced and uncertain of how to best interact with the other inmates. Furlong looks androgynous in the context of the other inmates, carries himself kind of shyly, and frankly, looks like the kind of guy who would wind up being a rape victim within the first few weeks of incarceration. As the film progresses, his character changes, becoming darker, and more acclimated to prison and prison culture.

Willem DaFoe is excellent as Earl Copen. DaFoe portrays Copen as haggard and wise, a jaded prisoner in a way that seems more genuine than say Morgan Freeman's turn as Red in Shawshank Redemption. (This is not meant as a slight against Shawshank Redemption, which I am also a fan of). There is a tired look in his eyes sometimes, and a calculating reptilian expression at others. The performance is sometimes very subtle, and at other times, animated. Copen has been incarcerated for so long that he knows how to exploit the place to suit his needs. DaFoe performance changes showing Copen's adaptation to what the situation needs to achieve his goal. He takes Decker under his wing and shows him the ropes, so to speak. He helps Decker find a better job in the prison, and helps him make the best of his situation, while Decker worries what he wants in return.

The film also stars Danny Trejo, whom Bunker befriended in Folsom Prison. Many other familiar character actors turn up in the film as well, such as John Heard (C.H.U.D., Chumscrubber), Mark Boone Junior (Memento, Seven), Chris Bauer (The Wire, 8mm), Tom Arnold (Rosanne, Freddy's Dead), Seymour Cassel (Convoy, Rushmore), and Mickey Rourke (Angel Heart, The Wrestler).

Mickey Rourke turns in a particularly noteworthy performance as a trans gender convict, who is Decker's first roommate. He gives a great monologue at one point in the film about how he was born the wrong sex. In the DVD's special features, there is a really amusing interview with Rourke where he talks about the lengths he went to in order to get into character for the movie, including flying across country wearing a bra and outfit similar to what he wears in the film. In the film's commentary, Danny Trejo points out that Rourke also wrote some of his own dialog for the film.

The film touches on other interesting aspects of prison life, such as race relations. There's a scene in the film where the African American convicts are staging a demonstration for better working conditions and one of the characters tells Decker that he'd join them except that they are all black, that he'd be shut out by some of his white friends if he did. In another instance, a white inmate is attacked by a black one who is mentally unstable, and tension ensues despite it not being a race related issue. It also touches on things like how the convicts perform certain actions and make decisions based on how that action will appear to other convicts. As Copen says at one point in the film, “All a convict has is his name, remember that.”

The film has a great atmosphere to it. The set design is excellent. The prison looks run down and aging, and provides opportunities for great visual moments. The place looks so beat up and old that you can almost smell the old building musty odor of the place. There is very little scored music in the film, with most of the sounds present being ambient noises such as footsteps, doors closing, alarms sounding and the like. The majority of the music is heard when a convict is playing a song on a guitar and the others are listening to it.

This was the second feature film by long time actor Steve Buscemi, who also directed Trees Lounge, and later went on to direct many TV series episodes such as Oz, The Sopranos, and Nurse Jackie. It was based on a book written by Edward Bunker, an ex-convict who passed away in 2005 at the age of 71, and also wrote the screenplay. Bunker, who wrote several books and films including the Dustin Hoffman vehicle, Straight Time, served time for bank robbery, drug dealing, extortion, armed robbery, and forgery. (This is according to Wikipedia which admittedly is not always the most reliable source of information, but I've read interviews with Bunker where he talks about several of these crimes.) He started out with juvenile detention centers while a minor, and in 1951, at age 17 he became the youngest inmate at San Quentin Prison. Bunker was in (and occasionally out) of prison for various offenses until 1975. Discovering that he was earning a living from writing and acting, he put his criminal days behind him. Edward Bunker appears in Animal Factory in a brief cameo, which is what most of his film performances amounted to, including his role as Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs.

What sets Animal Factory apart from the majority of prison films I have seen is that it feels very realistic. People going into this film expecting the typical prison film will be a bit disappointed. While films like Shawshank Redemption and American Me feel appropriately bleak and gritty, this film has an authenticity about it that struck me as fascinating. The interactions between the convicts feels very real. Even the way that they walk and the conversations that they have with each other feel somehow more authentic than I've seen in other prison films.

I've never spent time in prison, and I've only knowingly been acquainted with a few people who have over the years, so I can't speak as an expert on the prison experience. But the few times I have spoken with ex-convicts and literature I've read, such as Jack Henry Abbott's In The Belly Of The Beast, have lead me to believe that prison life is better exemplified by Animal Factory than by Shawshank Redemption or Oz. If anyone who reads this has served time and feels compelled to comment on this, I'd be very interested to hear what you have to say.

The commentary track on the DVD by Edward Bunker and Danny Trejo is really interesting. They both talk about the different people that they know that they served time with and how many of the characters in the film are based on those people. It's filled with anecdotes about prison life on everything from the boredom of prison and comments on prison food to explaining how some of the different scams that convicts pull on each other work. They point out many of the extras in the film were ex-convicts that they served time with, telling their stories. Bunker talks about working to get the film made, how it took five years to get made, and some of the aspects of filming the movie in a prison with actual inmates.

I really love this movie, and have always felt like it's been overlooked. I highly recommend it to fans of prison dramas. I love the performances in it, I think the set design is great, and that it's got great atmosphere. I really hope that people who haven't seen it check it out.

As always, comments are welcome!


  1. Wow, awesome review. I didn't even recognize Tom Arnold by the pictures at first. Interested to see how Buscemi did as a director. Also interesting to see all the movies that Mickey Rourke did while one reporter who wrote an article on him after The Wrestler came out said that he had come out of hiding after not making movies for almost 20 years, lol

  2. Glad to see this movie getting some love. Rourke and Trejo really sealed the deal for me on this flick. Trejo (a exconvict) really needs to be picked up for some more dramatic lead roles.

  3. nice review for a great movie.

    Eddie Bunker's books are really great. No Beast So Fierce is one of the best. it starts off in jail and talks about probation and getting back into crime.

    Buscemi while a great actor is a really great director too. he directed some of the more memorable Sopranos episodes too.

    Ed Bunker played a police chief in Tango & Cash. ironic.

  4. Loved Willem Dafoe in this. One of his best roles.

    Also great site you have here! Just started following you via blogger\google.