In Retrospect: Animal Factory (2000) – REVIEW

For a while now I’ve been wondering how I could feature more of the films and TV shows I watch on this site. Something finally clicked whilst I was having a conversation with someone a few weeks ago – a retro review column. So simple, and yet, so effective. And now, here we are, getting the wheels in motion with a real hidden gem, Steve Buscemi’s Animal Factory.

The film centres on the relationship between young Ron Decker (Edward Furlong) and hardened convict Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe). As the man who practically runs the prison that has housed him for the past 18 years, Earl takes Ron under his wing and mentors him throughout his time there, making sure that he’s looked after and does the best time he can whilst inside.

Animal Factory

Animal Factory is a grittier, less romantic take on the friendships made in prison

Ask anybody for a film about life in prison, and they’ll probably recommend The Shawshank Redemption. While it may sit in a similar vein, this is certainly a very different story. It takes that formula and presents it in a very different way. It makes the relationship between its two main characters the primary focus, using various aspects of prison life to fully explore the dynamics between them.

As far as the central relationship goes, there was a distinct father-son vibe to it. The actors perfectly fitted their respective roles. That’s not to say that they were the only people who could’ve pulled it off, but as someone watching Animal Factory today, it made sense seeing the likes of Furlong and Dafoe playing the characters that they did here. For me, the latter was especially well-cast as Earl. I’ve seen him play these stoic, patriarchal individuals quite a few times before, and personally view him as quite a well-respected actor. To see him portray the king of the castle here just made sense.

Animal Factory

A look at what prison does to a person

Animal Factory is based on the novel by Edward Bunker, who also has a cameo in the film. Knowing a little bit about the man, seeing his name attached to the source material told me that there was going to be a hint of what I’d imagine to be authenticity to the story (never been to prison so couldn’t say for sure). However, with the insight that he would have into prison life, I knew that this wasn’t just going to be about the day-to-day events, but that it would explore a more human element too. This was the correct assumption to make.

To me, the film explored the idea that whilst you might not be a bad person going into prison, you will be by the time you get out, if you even get that far. It is an animal factory; dehumanising individuals by throwing them into a pressure cooker and forcing them to do things they wouldn’t necessarily do on the outside to survive. It’s a little film in every sense, but Animal Factory had big things to say about the penal system and the further damage it can cause. The fact it did this on such a small budget without any grand-standing somehow meant it had greater impact too.

Animal Factory

This is a lesser-known treasure

Being such a quiet, unimposing film, Animal Factory will have fallen by the wayside for a lot of people. However, with such well-filled central performances, plus a stacked supporting cast which I failed to mention until now, and the solid subject matter, it really does deserve to have a little more light shed on it. It’s an obvious next step for fans of The Shawshank Redemption and lovers of human tales from dehumanised settings. The phrase, ‘hidden gem,’ couldn’t be more fitting. 

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