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Animal Factory

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 10/15/03 07:02:57

"A two-hander just about worthy of your attention"
3 stars (Just Average)

Prison movies. Seen one, seen them all. Wrongful incarceration, hope, death, rape, regret and probable escape are generally what you get when you see a prison movie be it, 'The Birdman of Alcatraz' or 'The Shawshank Redemption'. 'Animal Factory' is no different and nothing special, but the two leads should keep you watching.

Ron Decker (Ed Furlong) has just been sent down for the first time for a drugs offence, despite coming from a well-off family. Despite warnings from his probabtion officer (Steve Buscemi) he falls under the influence of Earl Copen (Willem Defoe), a dangerous lifer, but the man who can get and arrange things in prison. The officer believes Copen has a predatory interest in Decker, but Decker clings to the belief that Copen is offering him a chance of salvation and a way out of not only the prison, but of crime itself.

Big themes then, but ultimately they're shrank by what's a pretty small-scale film. We've all been here before and in better movies. There's no epic scale or emotional intensity of a Shawshank here, or sense of injustice of something like 'Murder In The First'. Decker's guilty as hell and we know it, so the film has a pretty hard task of working up our sympathy for him.

Instead, Buscemi just lets his actors do the film's talking for him. Furlong proves that Hollywood really could be better off with him back in the game, giving a pretty damning portrayal of someone resigned to not getting themselves out of the gutter, and taking the consequences for better or worse. And whether it was due to preparation for the role, or his actual hard-living life, Furlong looks really, really ill. And that's before he even gets sent to prison. Dude, if that's not make-up...see a Doctor. Seriously.

But Furlong is simply acting in the shadow of Defoe. Sometimes looking out of place in bigger films, Defoe rules here like Copen rules the prison. Stalking round, shaven-headed (looking much nastier than he did in Spider-Man) he gives an ambigious, edgy performance of someone whose motives and actions are good on the outside, but there's always a feeling that there's something else going on behind the narrowed eyes.

As well as Furlong and Defoe, 'Animal Factory' is notable for two of the strangest casting decisions you're likely to see in a long time. Firstly, Mickey Rourke plays Ron's cellmate. Nothing strange with that you might think, Rourke would be a pretty convincing prisoner. Well he is, behind the camp lisp and underneath the foundation, mascara, rouge and eyeliner that he wears as the prison queen. Honestly. A Mickey Rourke appearance is a few and far between thing these days, but I guess he knows how to make an impression.

But topping even him off is Tom Arnold as a brutal rapist. Yes, you read that right, a brutal rapist who takes a fancy to Ron. However, this 'inspired' casting doesn't quite come off as when he's sticking his finger up Ron's arse, the effect is negated as you're thinking "Hey,...that's Tom Arnold'.

Buscemi's directorial style is quiet and unobtrusive, letting the actors carry the film, while lingering momentarily on moments of squalor such as the attempted rape or Copen's bloody attempt to feign madness. He's got nothing new to tell here, and thus doesn't make a big show of it, just pacing out the film and the characters to a severely underwhelming climax. Buscemi may be an actors director, but he's short of being a story director at the moment.

So nothing new here, just some good acting, some flinching attention to grisly detail and some bizarre cameo's. If you've spare time, or spare money, then yeah give it a shot. Otherwise...it's a movie that elicits a shrug of the shoulders instead of two thumbs up.

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