Having a limited release in the States and delayed a release on these shores for three long years, advance word on Steve Buscemi's second directorial outing was mixed to say the least. The good news is that it emerges as a gripping, if slow-moving, prison drama, a film that deserves considerably more attention than it's been met with so far.
Sent down for dealing, fresh-faced Ron Decker (Edward Furlong) discovers that life in the big house is rough. Especially when you're a good-looking 21 year old. Surrounded by hardened cons, Ron's destined to be banged up in more ways than one. That is until Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe) decides to take the new boy under his wing...
Based on a novel by ex-con crime writer Edward Bunker ( Reservoir Dogs' Mr Blue), The Animal Factory's a grim and grimy trawl through prison life. If it lacks originality, that's because it's culled from Bunker's own memory banks, meaning banality and reality take precedence over narrative quirks or stylistic gimmickry. Buscemi honours Bunker's tale by lensing with an assured, unfussy touch, paring down the technique to draw top-notch performances from Dafoe and Furlong. Buscemi also teases excellent supporting turns from Mickey Rourke as a transvestite(!) and Tom Arnold as the tough guy out to pop Ron's cherry.
But the movie's quiet success lies in its focus on the homoerotic undercurrent between the leads. Without this sexual frisson, Animal Factory would just be Shawshank without the redemption. As it is, we have an interesting hybrid: a flinty prison-drama-cum-love-story.
This solid drama may be too familiar to break out of the confines of the prison genre, but it should keep Steve Buscemi's behind-the-camera career ticking along nicely.