Animal Factory is based upon the 1977 novel by Edward Bunker, which was partially inspired by his own time in and out of jail until his parole in 1975. His debut novel No Beast So Fierce was published while he still was behind bars, and became an instant sensation in the crime-fiction world. By the end of the decade it had been made into the film Straight Time. Bunker co-wrote the script and had a bit part in the film, and ended up having a mixed view of the final product. However, in my opinion Straight Time is probably the best film ever made about a criminal trying to go “straight,” and Dustin Hoffman’s greatest performance.
Bunker would get some fame because of Straight Time and his books, and throughout the ’80s he had small parts in Hollywood films: Miracle Mile and The Running Man are my personal favourite Bunker bit parts from during this time. He also co-wrote the script for the fun but vastly overrated Runaway Train, which elevated his notoriety in Hollywood. Most people today know him as Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs, and despite butting heads in a friendly way with Quentin Tarantino over the dialogue, it would mark Bunker becoming a more widely known figure in film as well as literature.
Animal Factory was directed by his Dogs co-star Steve Buscemi, in his second directorial effort (Buscemi also has a small role in the film), and it’s undeniably the best American prison film so far this century.
Like Darren Aronofsky when he did Requiem for a Dream, Buscemi decided to reset the story to the modern day. Both saw the obviously universal aspects of their films, themes that transcend the time they were originally set in. It never seems like a decision made due to the film’s comparably small budgets, even though that probably played a role. Animal Factory conveys the reality of prison life, which is incredibly rare. It’s set in San Quentin, but for obvious reasons they didn’t shoot there. However, they did shoot at a real prison, and most of the film’s extras were inmates at the prison.
Edward Furlong plays the protagonist, Ron Decker, who gets sent to the slammer for a small marijuana offence. He is soon under the wing of the hardened older inmate Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe), who teaches him the ropes of prison life. You see the how Ron deals with the onslaught of assault, rape attempts, and drugs in the prison, and how he navigates his way through it with the help of Earl.
The film is helped enormously by an outstanding supporting cast, including Mickey Rourke, who is unrecognisable as the transsexual Jan. Rourke flew in to do his scenes in the full get-up, and got some interesting looks on the plane. John Heard plays Ron’s father, and you really get a feeling of his pain of seeing his son behind bars in only a few scenes. The rest of the cast are people like Mark Boone, Jr., who was Buscemi’s comedy partner during his punk rock days, and Seymour Cassel as one of the guards. Danny Trejo also appears as one of the inmates—he and Bunker actually went way back, as they were in San Quentin together during the ’60s and remained lifelong friends. They reconnected when they worked together on Runaway Train.
Animal Factory was little-seen when it first came out in 2000, but had a good reception at the Sundance film festival. The film’s stature has only grown since it came out on DVD, helping more people to discover it. We all know that Steve Buscemi is one of the greatest actors alive, but he is also one of the best American directors of the last 20 years. His first three films as a director are as strong a run as any other director of his generation. Buscemi’s 4th film, Interview, is merely OK, and he has worked in TV since. However, news of him adapting William S. Burroughs’ Queer has been persistent, so hopefully that is on the horizon.
The disc is fairly light on the extras, but ports over the commentary by Bunker and Trejo from the original DVD. The new extra is the critic Barry Forshaw talking about his experiences meeting Bunker, and his life and work in general. The region 1 DVD had some short but decent interviews with Buscemi and some of the cast, which were sadly not transferred to this release. The first pressing includes a booklet by Glenn Kenny.