Animal Factory

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Animal Factory

Two films into his directorial career, Steve Buscemi has already established a specialty in the form of intimate looks at the day-to-day workings of communities no one would want to join. From the dead-end lives of alcohol-soaked small-towners in Trees Lounge, Buscemi's second film moves to an even more desperate situation: life behind bars. "You're not you anymore," star Edward Furlong's father tells him at one point, but that, along with the title, is the closest Animal Factory comes to expressing its point by any means except illustration. Working from a novel by convict turned writer/actor Edward Bunker (best known as Reservoir Dogs' unfortunate Mr. Blue), Buscemi lets the rough facts of prison life speak for themselves. Furlong, playing a young drug offender, quickly discovers that nothing has prepared him for prison's violence, rape, and racial tension, or the ways such underlying threats can reshape his character even if they remain unrealized. Furlong finds some protection, however, when he's befriended by veteran inmate Willem Dafoe, a sad-eyed gang leader whose multiple extended stints have allowed him to develop connections among prisoners and guards alike. Never sure of Dafoe's intentions, Furlong at first keeps him at arm's length, but finds his options elsewhere as limited as they are unpleasant. To capture this, Buscemi opts for an approach as unsensationalistic as a warden's log. Violence simply lurks in the background as an everyday possibility, and when it occurs between long stretches of tedium, it flashes by quickly enough to seem almost unreal. An able cast that also includes Mickey Rourke (as Furlong's talkative, cross-dressing cellmate) and Tom Arnold (in a creepily believable performance as a sexual predator) lends a needed grittiness. But despite a talented ensemble, the film belongs to Furlong and Dafoe's relationship, an uneasy alliance formed out of want, loneliness, and the need to preserve the possibility of redemption, or at least escape. For all it has going for it, however, Animal Factory never gains dramatic momentum. Perhaps that's unavoidable in a prison film trying to maintain believability, but here it still seems like a mistake, albeit one offset by virtues strong enough to make Buscemi's stints behind the camera as intriguing as his stints in front of it.