Animal Factory (2000)
Directed by: Steve Buscemi
Written by: Edward Bunker, John Steppling
Starring: Danny Trejo, Edward Bunker, Edward Furlong, Jake La Botz, John Heard, Mark Boone Junior, Mickey Rourke, Tom Arnold, Victor Pagan, Willem Dafoe
ANIMAL FACTORY (2000)
Directed by Steve Buscemi
After getting into trouble with the police, young lad Ron Decker is sent to prison to serve time with older, experienced convicts. When he arrives, he’s taken under the wing of Earl Copen, a seasoned veteran of the prison who holds weight in the institution with his loyal group of friends. With Decker seen as fresh meat by many of the inmates looking to exploit and take advantage of him, Earl realises he must help the kid get out of there and they hatch a plan to escape the prison.
Written by ex-con turned screenwriter Eddie Bunker, widely known for the superb Runaway Train starring Jon Voight, ANIMAL FACTORY is a biographical tale focusing on life inside a prison and the drama inside of it. As someone who is no stranger to being in prison or escaping such confines, Eddie draws from his experience to craft a realistic view of prison life from the eyes of an intellectual looking out for a lamb that has been sent to the slaughter.
Acting superstar Willem Dafoe gives his all as shaved-head convict Earl, a smart and cunning criminal who seems misplaced in such an institution yet is strangely at home in it. Running the block and heading a gang, albeit a reasonable one compared to the others, Earl is the kindly father figure that places the young, out-of-his-depth Decker (an underused Edward Furlong) under his watchful eye. Working as a typist for the prison, Earl is a trusted member of the system, even though he is still a part of it, and is given privileges by the wardens that he more often than not takes advantage of. Being such an educated individual, Earl knows every inch of the prison as if he’s built it himself and even though he’s an inmate, it often appears that he’s running the joint albeit with a little help from his trusted friends Vito (Danny Trejo), Paul Adams (Son’s of Anarchy’s Mark Boone Junior) and Jesse (Jake La Botz). In a enclosed society where the threat of murder or rape is around every corner, Earl and his friends represent the good guys looking to bring some decency and order to the prison and it’s with every bit of luck that Earl reaches Decker before the corrupt and depraved do.
For a prison movie, ANIMAL FACTORY is quite subdued with very little going on in the terms of big, eye-catching action that we’re more accustomed to. However, what we have in Steve Buscemi’s adaptation of Bunker’s work is a realistic portrayal of prison life that is neither glammed up nor violently exaggerated in order to get bums on seats. Life behind bars and the hierarchy system within is better represented here than the over-dramatised prison flicks pumped out by Hollywood and TV and is actually written by someone who knows better than anyone what life is like inside a prison and the plausability of escaping such a facility having done so numerous times in his own lifetime. Having finally settled for a straight life at the age of 44, having spend most of his time in prison, Bunker is without a doubt an authority on prison life and even stars in the film, as a janitor inmate, as does his fellow ex-con Danny Trejo. Both have turned their lives around since leaving their criminal ways behind and harnessed their own talents to better themselves.
As a slice of entertainment, ANIMAL FACTORY can be lacking in many ways. As a small movie, almost indie-style in its approach, it lacks the punch to keep you on your toes but it does captivate with its more believable view of life behind bars and the threats that lie behind every cell door. The power of the movie lies in its interactions between different characters, be it for better or worse. From racial rioting to predatory rapists, the film does a good job of bringing in events that occur within prisons without blowing them out of proportion. We even see that Earl himself is no squeaky clean inmate as he smuggles drugs for his gang to take when they’re not secretly sipping their homebrew. The variety of characters are rather well-represented with a broad range of races and ages making up the inmates of the prison, even including a transvestite, Jan, played by the scene-stealing Micky Rourke.
Those looking for a hard-hitting, ultra-tense prison movie might as well look elsewhere because ANIMAL FACTORY is not it. However, if you’re looking for an intellectual prison movie with heart and authenticity, then ANIMAL FACTORY is well worth a look. In this recent Arrow Video release, you can even listen to Eddie Bunker share his thoughts on the film and his own experiences of prison life with Danny Trejo on the film’s commentary and there’s even a featurette detailing Eddie’s career for those not familiar with the author/screenwriter.
Ultimately a tale of survival, ANIMAL FACTORY is probably the most realistic prison film out there with a stellar cast that embodies the roles they have been given. It’s by no means a perfect film, with a lack of development in many cases, but take it for what it is and you’ll no doubt enjoy what it has to offer.