ON THE INSIDE THE RULES ARE BRUTAL AND THE STAKES ARE HIGH
If there’s one place that I don’t know about, it’s prison. And if there’s one place that Eddie Bunker does know about, it’s prison. Bunker used to be a criminal, a seriously bad egg convicted of vandalism, armed robbery, numerous assaults, including jamming a fork in another boy’s eye at age 15 and stabbing a prison guard at 17. He was, for a while, the youngest inmate in the California penal system. However, on the inside, he became a novelist, writing No Beast So Fierce (about armed robbery) and Animal Factory (about life in prison). He also became friends with people in the business, including James Ellroy, Michael Mann and Danny Trejo. He’s also appeared in many films, most notably as Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs. As can be expected, some of his books, those mentioned above, were eventually turned into films.
Ron (Edward Furlong) is privileged young man, sentenced to a stretch in prison on marijuana charges. On the inside, he is taken under the wing of 18-year prison veteran, Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe). As Ron serves his time, he becomes part of Earl’s gang, so Earl can keep him out of trouble. However, with prison being the place that it is, filled with violence, drugs and the constant threat of assault, it might not take long before Ron succumbs to his environment.
I’ve actually got the novel for Animal Factory, although I’ve never got round to reading it. No real reason as to why, I’ve just been busy reading other things. I will say, though, that if the novel is anything like the script for Animal Factory, which Bunker co-wrote with John Steppling, a sporadic writer of crime films and TV, then I hold out less hope for the book than when I first acquired it. The script is quite poor. Although it is filled with some nice details of prison life that could only have come from someone with firsthand experience, the script that it produced is remarkably clumsy. The major problem is that Bunker and Steppling seem to have confused gritty brutality with a lack of subtlety. Often characters, particularly Ron, say what’s on their minds in an awkward attempt to convey information. You can understand the necessity for it, of course. The prison system is a complex thing, and the rules of conduct are as important as the rules of basic survival. Like Ron, we are a stranger to these walls, so we need someone to tell us what’s happening, who’s who, how to behave if you want to stay alive and… well, intact. Ron isn’t alone in this. Some of Earl’s conversations have the distinct air of mere exposition and explanation, so the feeling of being spoon-fed is hard to ignore. There are also quite a few plot holes, such as Ron’s father’s attempts to get him out and the film’s open-ended and weak denouement.
Some of our principle characters are rather poorly drawn, too. Ron’s relationship with Earl is meant to be something akin to a father-son dynamic, but neither character is sufficiently built to explain the reason for this. The only scene we have to think that there may be a problem between Ron and his real father, played by John Heard, is that his dad missed Ron’s court date, so he got sentenced on his own. However, every other time we see him, Ron’s father is attentive and loving and incredibly self-sacrificing. It’s also never properly determined why Earl would care one bit about Ron. Does he remind of him of himself when he was young? Does Earl have a son that won’t speak to him, and so Ron becomes a surrogate? Is he doing someone other than Ron a favour? It’s never really addressed in a way that offers a satisfactory explanation for his actions. Given that this is the central relationship of the film on which the film rests, it’s just not good enough to warrant any kind of investment from the viewer.
Sadly, the direction does little to rectify this situation, which is a real shame because it’s directed by Steve Buscemi. There is just no atmosphere to this prison. Given the title of the film and its very clear thesis (that prison is a place for breeding criminals, not rehabilitating them), there should be a palpable air of threat behind these bars. Scenes of violence seem to have such a distance to them, even when they involve our main protagonist. And everything just seems so blocky. There’s no sense of nuance or delicacy to the visuals. Just because we’re in a harsh place, doesn’t mean the images have to be so rudimentary. The environment isn’t even that harsh. One of the major obstacles to this lack of atmosphere is the cinematography from Phil Parmet, and the general lack of grit on everything. The lighting is so pleasant that the surroundings actually look quite comfortable. Hell, say what you want about Prison Break, at least that place looked grim and the characters were defined and somewhat threatening.
One of the more frustrating things about the film are the occasional hints at something interesting, a story that may be worth picking up on, or a character that clearly has some depth just waiting to be explored, but they never get picked up. At best, it’s a glimpse and a single line of dialogue and then we move on. For example, near the beginning of the film, Ron briefly talks to a black kid, another young man going to the same prison for the first time. They occasionally spot each other as they serve their sentence, but there’s one instance where we see the different positions they find themselves in. Passing each other in the hallway, it’s clear that the other young man has had to become the property of a much larger prisoner for protection; he’s become a “punk”. Thanks to Earl, Ron has not been broken down by the place in the same way, so he’s remained free of violation. This opens up an interesting notion, whereby we could much better see the kind of toll prison takes on a young man new to the system, compared to the relatively easy road Ron has. However, we so rarely see this other kid, and when we do he’s actually in decent shape, so the whole point is rather moot.
There are some things that are good. John Lurie’s music has an interesting edge to it, a bluesy feel streaked by metallic grindings that offset the surroundings better than the lighting or direction. There’s also a surprising and welcome cameo from Antony Hegarty, from Antony and the Johnsons, as a prisoner singing for other inmates at a performance night. The performances are okay for the most part, many trying their best to cope with such poor character development, Furlong and Dafoe included. Two performances stand out, however, as being the closest thing to having actual depth or presence, something tangible. Typically, they are both bit parts. The first is Mickey Rourke’s Jan, an effeminate transvestite prisoner who has taken to modelling himself after Liza Minelli, albeit a very butch Liza Minelli. Ron’s original cellmate, Jan talks incessantly, and very amusingly, about what he wants to do when he gets out, where he’ll go and how hard he finds it being so pretty in such a nasty place. It becomes clear that he is very lonely, and needs a sympathetic ear to listen to him because he feels so alone. It’s simply from how well Rourke plays Jan that we get a sense of the character’s place in prison and the world. It’s also absolutely typical that we never see or hear about him again after Ron is moved to another cell. He's just abandoned. The other good show comes from Tom Arnold, who plays Buck Rowan, a regular of the prison system, new to these parts and a thoroughly nasty individual. Arnold is a big, imposing guy, so Buck is actually the only person in this whole prison who makes any kind of impression as a threat, and Arnold does it with little more than a hard stare. Every time he’s onscreen, he’s very menacing, making no secret of his desire to rape Ron, despite his supposed protection. Once again, the film dispatches Buck quickly and, though we hear about him afterwards, it’s a very unsatisfying conclusion and leaves the film feeling hollow once again.
Animal Factory should really be much better than it is, but it simply isn’t. The script is weak, the direction is short-sighted, the cinematography is wholly inappropriate and most of the actors spend their time trying make up for the weakness in the writing. Plus, in this film, prison just seems so inconsequential. There’s no real feeling of lasting threat, from guards or other prisoners, or that this is the kind of place that can change a person forever. This isn’t an animal factory… it’s a Build-A-Bear Workshop.