DIRECTED BY Steve Buscemi
STARRING Willem Dafoe, Edward Furlong, Seymour Cassel, Danny Trejo, Mickey Rourke, Tom Arnold
Opens July 4, Cert 18, 94 mins
After two years of gathering dust on distributors' shelves, Steve Buscemi's follow-up to his 1996 directorial debut, Trees Lounge, finally gets a UK cinema release.
Where Trees Lounge was a beautifully performed but slight, self-penned piece inspired by Buscemi's pre-stardom years hanging around Long Island bars, Animal Factory sees America's number one character actor adapt a novel written by fellow Reservoir Dog, Edward Bunker (Mr Blue to Buscemi's Mr Pink).
As befits Bunker (Uncut's favourite grizzled ex-con turned hardboiled crime writer and sometime actor), Animal Factory is a suitably unflinching take on the US prison system, as seen through the eyes of first-time convict Ron Decker (Furlong). Decker is facing 10 years without parole on a drug-trafficking charge when it becomes all too clear that his boyish good looks are going to do him no good whatsoever in the joint. Stalked by the prospect of savage beatings and sexual assault, Decker's lot is improved when he's taken under the wing of Earl Copen (Dafoe). For reasons that aren't immediately clear, Copen, a prison veteran of 18 years, whose reptilian intelligence and toughness have made him king rat, takes a shine to Decker. Copen insinuates the young lad into his alpha-male crew of gravel-voiced convicts and schools him in the ways of institutionalised survival.
Animal Factory steers clear of the overplayed shiv-wielding, butt-fucking histrionics delivered by so many convict dramas and presents a singular view of uncompromising jailhouse life, set apart by its casual authenticity and measured pacing. While the threat of gang rape and shower-room bloodbaths are ever present, Bunker's screenplay (co-adapted with John Steppling) portrays these harsh realities as matter-of-fact truths. Bunker and Buscemi are far more interested in the everyday workings of the US prison system and what it takes to retain a sense of self in this peculiarly codified, exclusively male environment.
Animal Factory was shot in a disused Philadelphia prison. All non-speaking roles were filled by recruits from the Philadelphia penal system (hard-timers on day release) and it shows. Never have the extras in a convict drama felt so intimidating-they aren't Actor's Studio ponces in prison stripes, these guys are the real deal.
Dafoe and Furlong are ideally cast as mentor and ingénue, exhibiting an unconsummated rough-and-tumble sexual chemistry that both unsettles and fascinates. Dafoe's shaven-headed Copen is an exercise in raw, snake-like power and savage unpredictability, the perfect counterpoint to Furlong's bruised and wide-eyed lamb to the slaughter.
Buscemi has also assembled a cracking supporting cast of left-field talent. Old-time Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassel plays Copen's kindhearted ally Lieutenant Seeman, John Heard supplies another all-too-brief study in middle-aged angst as Decker's helpless father, while Buscemi himself delivers a brief cameo as exasperated prison warden Hosspack. Copen's band of convicts is led by Robert Rodriguez regular Danny Trejo, who also serves as co-producer.
Good as these performances are, they're confined to solitary by two unexpected cameos. First up is Tom Arnold as hillbilly rapist Buck Rowan. He gives a truly chilling performance, a million miles from his wisecracking sitcom persona, and in one scene when Rowan corners Decker in a men's room he's like evil incarnate bearing down on the terrified kid.
Even better is Mickey Rourke as Decker's cellmate-a compassionately muscular lisping transvestite called Jan the Actress. You've never seen anything like this-s/he's a mix of pumped-up biceps, wistful dialogue, ill-fitting lingerie and dodgy dental work (Rourke ripped out two front teeth for the role). Jan is on screen for a total of five minutes, but the sight of Rourke's ravaged male beauty peaking out under a ton of Max Factor will haunt you for days. The Mickey Rourke revival officially starts here. Despite the film's 94-minute length, Buscemi lets all these fine performances breathe, focusing on characterisation and atmosphere without undermining the spirit of Bunker's narrative. Phil Parmet's stark cinematography and John Lurie's bluesy score are set against each other to powerful effect, delivering the polar opposite of, say, the emotionally manipulative Shawshank Redemption. This is a far more powerful, realistic work, rooted in absolute emotional authenticity.
Animal Factory is undoubtedly a major step forward for Buscemi the film-maker. Two films into his career as a director, everyone's favourite indie actor is shaping up to be a formidable talent behind the camera-a master of carefully judged performances and understated, close-focus cinematic tone.
Will he turn out to be this generation's John Cassavetes?
Hey, let's hope so.
Rating: 4 / 10