My streaming gem: why you should watch Animal Factory

The latest in our series of writers highlighting underseen movies is a recommendation for Steve Buscemi’s tough, well-acted prison drama

Steve Buscemi is one of our most prolific actors (164 credits and counting, according to IMDb), which is perhaps why his directorial output seems so comparatively, frustratingly slender. Though augmented by a fair amount of television (including episodes of both The Sopranos and 30 Rock), he’s helmed only four feature films, the most recent dating clear back to 2007. He began modestly, with an inaugural effort, Trees Lounge, that’s about what you’d expect from the indie stalwart: a seriocomic, Jarmuschian character study, laid-back and intimate.

His sophomore film, Animal Factory, is a notable step up, bigger and broader and far more ambitious. Based on the novel by Edward Bunker, who co-starred with Buscemi in Reservoir Dogs, it’s a busy, character-driven take on one of cinema’s most durable genres: the prison picture. The story of a long-timer and a newbie, culminating in an attempted escape, it’s easiest to summarize as The Shawshank Redemption – minus all the hope and good feeling.

Bunker appears in the film, briefly (like a ghost haunting his own story), co-wrote the screenplay adaptation and is credited as an executive producer – alongside his pal and protege Danny Trejo, another con turned actor, who plays a supporting role. But the focal character is Ron Decker (Edward Furlong), a new inmate in on a minor drug charge. Luckily, he quickly finds an advocate in Earl (Willem Dafoe, sporting a shaved head and well-worn sneer), the kind of resourceful inside man who can get things, and get things done: “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven,” explains this big fish in the prison’s little pond.

“You need friends,” Earl tells the newcomer, so he shows Ron the ropes, and imparts pearls of prison wisdom like “Inmate’s an insult – convict’s the term solitudes prefer” and “Half of knowin’ how to do time is getting’ the right job”.

Ron’s wide-eyed naivety makes him something of an audience surrogate, but Bunker and co-screenwriter John Steppling resist the urge to overwork him as an expositional device; much of their script is about the logistics and routines of prison life, filled with jailhouse lingo and patter (“show pass”, “lay-in”) that’s dropped in and left for the viewer to puzzle out. Bunker also colors the narrative with the kind of details only an insider would know (Earl, needing to pass information while in solitary, communicating with an ally by yelling into a toilet).

“I’m just not in my element in here, y’know,” Ron moans early on, but the prison eventually breaks him, as it does everyone. Furlong’s work here is subtle but steady, as he catalogs the close calls and self-preservation that create this slow transition from a tourist to, potentially, a lifer. Dafoe makes a good mentor, convincingly putting across Earl’s hard shell, and finding the fleeting moments to let his cracks show. Earl is an honest man, and he admits that the relationship fills a need for him, without explaining what that need is; maybe it’s a public service, or a wish for connection. Or maybe it’s just a desire to be important to another human being.

Buscemi casts Animal Factory with a carefully cultivated mixture of non-professionals and ace character actors, including Seymour Cassel, John Heard, Mark Boone Junior, Chris Bauer, Mickey Rourke (playing Ron’s trans cellmate with earthy humor and genuine humanity), Tom Arnold (playing against type, wide-eyed and shockingly scary) and Buscemi himself, in a short but welcome appearance as a prison official. What’s striking – but unsurprising, considering his background – is how much Buscemi trusts his actors to tell the story implicitly, in pauses, between the lines. He frequently skips dull, obligatory scenes and eschews deadening exposition, letting the emotional narratives of their faces and eyes fill in those blanks.

Buscemi is clearly fascinated by the carefully controlled politics of a place like this, which runs on an ecosystem of favors, allegiances, respect and retaliation; he also keys in on how the intense racial divisions contribute to an environment where violence can flare up quickly, and at any given moment. His patient, lived-in directorial style sniffs around the joint so thoroughly and convincingly that it feels like the viewer knows where everything is, and how everything works; it’s tempting to say one could make their way in this facility by the film’s end, but who are we kidding? Earlier this year, Ellen DeGeneres fueled one of several backlashes by comparing self-quarantine to prison. If Animal Factory does nothing else, it makes abundantly clear that the prison experience is, well, nothing like that.

  • Animal Factory is available to stream on Amazon Prime in the US and UK

Jason Bailey

The GuardianTramp

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