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ANIMAL FACTORY, THE(director: Steve Buscemi; screenwriter: from novel by Edward Bunker; cinematographer: Phil Parmet; editor: Kate Williams; cast: Willem Dafoe (Earl Copen), Edward Furlong (Ron Decker), Seymour Cassel (Lt. Seeman), Mickey Rourke (Jan the actress), Jake La Botz (Jessie), Danny Trejo (Vito), Tom Arnold (Buck), Steve Buscemi (Warden); Runtime: 90; Franchise Pictures/Industry Entertainment; 2000)

“The prison atmosphere of constant danger was fully captured…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Ron Decker (Furlong) is a small time dealer in marijuana, but he gets severely sentenced to a term of five years when apprehended. He is thrown into a hardened prison environment, where gangs are broken down according to ethnic groups: black, Puerto Rican, or white. For his protection the soft suburban kid luckily gets the help of the white gang leader, Earl Copen (Dafoe).

The question raised is whether the political climate is so paranoid that it doesn’t understand the difference between violent criminals and nonviolent druggies, who make up a large percent of the overcrowded prison population. Apparently the judicial system has broken down, so much so that it can’t satisfy either the political electorate who want stiffer punishments for all criminals and those who want more of an emphasis on education and counseling programs for the nonviolent offenders.

Through Decker’s suburban eyes we get the picture of how prison looks to a fish out of water. He has to be constantly fearful because he is now in a world where violence is the name of the game. He has to watch out that he is not gang raped or drawn into a fight or have someone pull a shank on him. A Puerto Rican gang wants to rape him and even though he tries to keep a low-profile, he is under constant scrutiny by all the prisoners. He has to learn how to conduct himself while in prison, so he is not considered a punk. Earl, who treats him as if he were his son and represses his desire to rape the beautiful kid, tells him no one can take a chance and be without protection from friends while in prison these days.

Earl is his mentor, showing him how to adjust to prison life. After being in this prison for 18 years, he knows everything about it and makes his way in it like it was his turf. Earl has befriended the prison guard Lt. Seeman (Cassel) and has connections with the convicts who have key jobs in the prison, and he can get weapons and drugs whenever he wishes. Earl tells him that the trick to doing the time is to get a good job and live in the right cell, and not get labeled as a punk. That bad name, once gotten, stays with you no matter what prison you go to.

The prison atmosphere of constant danger was fully captured, as the film had a gritty, realistic look. It was shot in Holmsburg State Prison, Pennsylvania. The convicts looked scary, the prison looked real, and the feeling of despair was the only air that was present. Rehabilitation seemed to be a farce, a show that one puts on to score clemency points from the judges.

Decker is having a tough time surviving, even with the savvy help from Earl who was once an angry convict but always had a tender spot for the right person. His help is altruistic; he does it because he sees the injustice of the system and lives vicariously through this kid, thinking that maybe he can have more of chance than he ever had.

As Decker uses Earl’s knowledge of the law to appeal his case, two troubling incidents in the prison show him that it will be impossible for him to get his sentence reduced. A black con in the shower attacks him with a razor and slashes his face, and later on the con is found dead in the garbage truck; and, a hillbilly prisoner in for raping an elderly woman, Buck (Arnold), tries to rape him in the bathroom. In retaliation, Decker gets a shank and puts it into Buck’s back. In the hospital Buck spills the beans on Decker and Earl puts out the word to get him, so Buck’s IV is poisoned with cleaning fluid and he dies in the hospital.

Seeing no other alternative but escaping from prison, Earl works out a plan for them to escape in the garbage trucks.

The acting was just fine. Furlong plays his part with trepidation, knowing that he has arrived in hell and that he is ill prepared for it. Dafoe, with a shaved head, looks the part and convincingly has the moves down pat of a hardened convict, knowing all the angles needed to make prison like his home; Mickey Rourke has a flamboyant part as a cross-dressing prison queen, amusingly offering his take on things to his impressionable cellmate Furlong.

The film had the right message to deliver about the stupidity of the current drug laws and the horrors of prison life. I don’t know if anyone seriously believes anymore that the prisons can be a place of rehabilitation. The film does a very good job in bringing this out and creating an entertaining picture. But it also seemed to stage everything in the story to weigh heavily into what its message was. The film didn’t feel like it was freely flowing along, and because of that the story floundered at times.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”