Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Language, Violence and Drug Use
Directed by: Steve Buscemi
Written by: Edward Bunker & John Steppling
(based on the novel ANIMAL FACTORY by Edward Bunker)
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Edward Furlong, Danny Trejo, John Heard, Mickey Rourke, Tom Arnold, Seymour Cassel, Mark Boone Jr. & Steve Buscemi
I discovered ANIMAL FACTORY while perusing through one of those countless “Best Movies You’ve Never Seen” lists that exist on the internet. This sounded like a really great movie in theory and comments about the film from various people (also including apparent ex-convicts) stated that this was the most realistic look at life in prison ever brought to the screen. If that’s the case, then I’d much rather stick with my SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and other exaggerated prison films, because this movie isn’t necessarily interesting or well-done.
Ron Decker has been convicted of drug possession and happened to be sentenced on an election year. This leads to him being sent for a lengthy stay at a harsh prison. Seeing as he’s only 21 years old and has boyish good looks, Ron is a prime target for rapists and violent gang leaders. Life inside the bars gets a lot easier for Ron once he strikes up a friendship with old veteran criminal Earl Copen. Copen has a handle on the whole prison system and is a highly respected leader to most of the inmates. Copen takes Ron under his wing to show him the ropes of daily prison life and, most of all, to help him survive on the inside.
The cast is probably the first thing that sticks out to anyone about ANIMAL FACTORY and I have to admit that these actors were well-chosen for their parts. Surprisingly, Edward Furlong gives what’s possibly his last decent performance of his career as our protagonist. Willem Dafoe is excellently cast as Copen, who seems to be a bad man with some good left in his heart. Mickey Rourke also pops up as Ron’s transvestite cell mate, but only receives about five total minutes of screen time. Danny Trejo plays every Danny Trejo character ever as Copen’s second-in-command. Though he’s pulling directorial duty behind the camera, Steve Buscemi still finds some time to briefly appear as a parole lawyer.
The problems with ANIMAL FACTORY come in messy pacing and boring direction. This movie just looks so plain and it’s no wonder why it debuted on television (after a brief festival run). Everything about it from the sets to just the way that scenes are framed looks and feels kind of bland. The plot starts off interestingly enough in Ron’s initial meeting with Copen, but the film picks up two weeks after Ron has been sent to prison. We don’t really experience any of the initial fear of meeting a cell mate and being introduced to the horrible environment. This seems like a development that might have made for a good introduction as opposed to just throwing the viewer two weeks into Ron’s stay. Other plot points are either rushed through far too quickly or focused on entirely too much. I would have liked more time spent on a dread-soaked subplot involving Tom Arnold as a creepy rapist who has his eye on Norton’s character. On the opposite end of the spectrum, far less time should have been dedicated to a super clichéd and overly familiar climax that felt like the ultimate shrug-inducing ending.
Ultimately, ANIMAL FACTORY suffers from a messy script, bad pacing and boring direction behind the camera. The talented cast lends a lot of the quality to just another otherwise standard, tame prison movie. This really isn’t anything that you haven’t seen before and I can’t recommend it. Stick with SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION for the best prison movie ever made and OZ for a disturbing, dark view on the system. They might not exactly be “realistic,” but they sure aren’t as tedious and overly tame as ANIMAL FACTORY.