Although it inevitably invites comparisons, not all of them flattering, to earlier dramas about desperately resourceful drug addicts, “Animals” nonetheless manages to command attention, generate tension and elicit empathy as it focuses on the day-to-day scams and struggles of its characters. Lead player David Dastmalchian reportedly drew on his personal experiences in the lower depths while writing the screenplay, which may explain the uncommonly compelling persuasiveness of his bleak story’s quotidian details. But impressive verisimilitude may not be enough to expand this indie’s appeal beyond the most venturesome arthouse habitues and home-screen viewers.
Early scenes indicate that Jude (Dastmalchian) and Bobbie (Kim Shaw) are well on their way down the path toward heroin-fueled self-destruction, but not yet so far gone as to be unattractive or off-putting. Indeed, Bobbie remains sufficiently appealing to play the central part in one of their routine hustles: She makes home visits to male customers expecting a call girl, but flees the scene — with money in hand — before delivering on her alluring promise.
Jude also appears reasonably respectable — even though he and Bobbie have been reduced to living in a car parked near Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo — so he’s still able to remain inconspicuous while shoplifting CDs, looting unattended purses, and showing up at weddings with Bobbie just long enough to swipe a present or two.
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Right from the start, it’s clear these two twentysomethings are bright enough to make a living through con artistry, and self-aware enough to realize that someday, some way, they really should consider kicking their habits. Unfortunately, it’s equally evident that their luck can’t hold out indefinitely.
Throughout the first half of “Animals,” there is a welcome amount of humor and some flashes of romantic warmth to alleviate the ever-present undercurrent of dread. As director Collin Schiffli gradually tightens the screws and builds suspense, however, the mood darkens.
There is a point when most viewers will simply stop worrying whether something awful may occur, and start trying to predict exactly what it will be — a botched scam, a bad fix or an ill-timed visit to a drug dealer — that will wind up dooming the couple. All of which makes the third act not only dramatically satisfying, but also mildly surprising.
Dastmalchian and Shaw are thoroughly convincing both as vividly drawn, emotionally complex individuals, and as a couple inextricably bound by addiction and enabling. Among the well-cast supporting players, John Heard makes the most significant impact by making every second count in his brief role as a sympathetic security guard.
Lenser Larkin Donley enhances the air of chilly melancholy that hangs over the entire film, while the nimble editing of Amanda Griffin amps the sense of urgency felt during the couple’s fleeting highs and despairing lows.