Building on the strengths of his debut feature, the poignant “Trees Lounge,” actor-turned-director Steve Buscemi brings the same unfussy confidence and bittersweet empathy to “Animal Factory,” a fine prison drama based on ex-con Edward Bunker’s novel. Though violence and suspense aren’t lacking, pic eschews the more hyperbolic strains of Big House melodrama in favor of nuanced character development, providing rich opportunities for a terrific male ensemble. As with “Trees Lounge,” feature’s low-key seriocomic approach may provide difficulties: Mainstream auds hoping for a brutal action pic won’t cotton to feature’s unformulaic, sometimes ambiguous narrative, while arthouse patrons might be scared off by its high-testosterone milieu. But marketing emphasis on what’s likely to be an admiring critical response should serve pic well in more sophisticated territories.
New to prison life is 21-year-old Ron Decker (Edward Furlong), a middle-class kid who’s had “all the advantages,” yet already seems half-numbed to the consequences his drug dealing and use have wrought. An uncooperative attitude, and election-year pressure on the courts to look “tough on crime,” hand him a sentence that’s pretty ugly for a first offense.
Ron tries to keep a low profile at the state penitentiary, where racial identity, staff deal-cutting, aggression and social cliques all factor into deciding who’s a victim and who’s a victimizer. But it’s not long before his youthful looks attract unwelcome attention. Fearing gang rape, he asks for help from Earl Copen (shaven-headed Willem Dafoe), a fellow white inmate so well connected he can boast that this is “my damn prison.”
By asking Earl directly for assistance, Ron is breaking the populace’s Byzantine protocol — but he’s lucky, because Earl takes a shine to him. The immediate crisis finessed, Ron finds himself enjoying various privileges allotted Earl’s inner circle. But latter gang is on the prison authorities’ radar as a bad influence, which means Ron now bears their close scrutiny, too.
Within limits, there’s almost nothing Earl can’t arrange for his pals — from material comforts to cushy work assignments, drugs, preferential guard treatment, even legal advice. He can also ensure revenge, whether fatal or just fear-inducing, if an inmate gets out of line. But for the most part Earl uses his influence harmlessly, negotiating nonviolent solutions whenever possible within the prison’s constant, tense face-offs between human force and vulnerability.
After a while, Ron worries just how he’s expected to repay this debt of favors. He’s even more worried once Earl orchestrates his move to the latter’s cell block. Inmate reasoning suggests that Ron might just as well drop the soap right now — Earl is his rightful “daddy” already. Yet Earl refuses to press his advantage, exhibiting an affection that’s part fatherly, part tacitly romantic. “I probably wouldn’t help you at all if you were ugly, but that’s my problem,” he admits, explaining his mentoring as “a need to feel something.” When Ron blows his chance at parole, Earl gamely proposes an escape plan.
In one of his best leading screen turns, Dafoe makes a potentially unlikely construct into a fascinating, full-blooded figure. Longtime inmate Earl is evidently highly intelligent, a consummate deal-maker, loyal and generous when the spirit moves him. But he’s also a pragmatist in a dangerous environment; here, violence is sometimes the only viable form of conflict resolution. Dafoe’s beautifully restrained perf suggests a complex enough internal life to make Earl’s attraction — and respectful lack of sexual aggression — toward Ron seem credible despite surrounding ritual abuse of such “punks.”
Furlong’s customary not-all-thereness serves him well at first, suggesting the druggy detachment that might lead a kid from a “good home” to the pen. But later his lack of character definition becomes problematic, since we should develop some rooting interest in Ron’s fate; Dafoe engenders so much more sympathy that the film’s central dynamic grows a bit lopsided. As a result, twist-of-fate ending avoids cliche but fails to deliver much emotional satisfaction.
Nonetheless, “Animal Factory” is always engaging, with humor, intrigue and suspense deftly blended. Supporting cast is stocked with familiar faces in fine form: Seymour Cassel plays a senior prison guard who’s Earl’s best ally; Tom Arnold is a leering “hillbilly” inmate with a malevolent interest in Ron. Danny Trejo, Michael Bauer, Jake La Botz (who sings a couple of blues songs) and scribe Bunker are among other principal inmates, while John Heard has a few scenes as Ron’s worried father. Helmer and his brother Michael Buscemi turn up briefly as parole counselors.
Most audacious stroke was casting Mickey Rourke — still buff but at first unrecognizable — as “Jan the Actress,” an outrageously attired, endlessly trash-talking queen who’s Ron’s first cellmate. Rourke really throws himself into this part, and though the character feels a bit theatrically conceived and presented, it’s disappointing when he vanishes midway through the narrative.
John Lurie’s discordant roots-music score contributes to film’s gritty, unpredictable air. Ditto Kate Williams’ deft editing and Phil Parmet’s fine, unshowy lensing. Pic was shot in the 100-year-old, dormant Holmsburg State Prison outside Philadelphia. Its decayed state adds considerable atmosphere, though pic is pacey and eventful enough to avoid an excessively claustrophobic feel.