Dir: Steve Buscemi. US. 1999. 90 mins.
Prod Co: Phoenician Entertainment, Industry Entertainment, Arts Production Corp. Int'l Sales: Franchise Pictures. Prods: Julie Yorn, Elie Samaha, Steve Buscemi, Andrew Stevens. Exec prods: Alan Cohen, Barry Cohen, Edward Bunker, Danny Trejo. Scr: Edward Bunker form his novel. DoP: Phil Parmet. Prod des: Steven Rosenzweig. Ed: Kate Williams. Mus: John Lurie. Main cast: Willem Dafoe, Edward Furlong, Seymour Cassel, Mickey Rourke, Steve Buscemi, Tom Arnold.
Animal Factory shares many of the virtues and failings of Steve Buscemi's directorial debut Trees Lounge. Conscientiously crafted and showcasing a range of thoughtful performances, it is also resolutely low-key and probably too muted to register much of an impression at the box office. The potent cast and the possibility of some critical support lend it a better chance in ancillary markets.
Mr Blue in Reservoir Dogs, ex-con Edward Bunker, has written a number of admired books on the themes of crime and punishment. His novel Animal Factory provides Buscemi with an opportunity to eschew the more lurid excesses of the prison melodrama in favour of a quietly observed study of the bond that develops between hardened con Earl (Willem Dafoe) and the recently incarcerated Ron (Edward Furlong).
Unexpectedly jailed for minor drug offences, Ron's youth and middle-class background make him an especially vulnerable target until he finds a father figure/protector in Earl. King of all he surveys, Earl secures him special privileges and keeps him from harm's way. Although attracted to him, Earl maintains that his gestures of friendship are without ulterior motives and he remains true to his word. As Ron continues to fall foul of a corrupt system, it is Earl who appears to be his only hope of salvation.
Serving the story in an unobtrusive manner, Buscemi the director fails to sufficiently stamp his authority on the material, letting it drift without constructing any compelling momentum. He does however create the space for his actors to fully explore their characters and Dafoe is particularly adept at suggesting the conflicting instincts for survival and sensitivity within his hard man persona.