Directed by Steve Buscemi, starring Willem Dafoe, Edward Furlong, Danny Trejo, Seymour Cassel, Mickey Rourke, John Heard and Tom Arnold.
Lifer Earl Copen (Dafoe) reckons there are two things you need to survive prison time. One is the right job; the other is the right place to live. He has both and is determined that new arrival Ron Decker (Furlong) should 'enjoy' the same.
Facing a ten-year stretch - in an election year - for drug dealing, the wide-eyed and well-off Decker is not ready for the conditions or brutality of his new home. Copen, however, has been there since Decker was a baby, is surrounded by a fiercely loyal crew (led by Trejo), works for the chief warder (Cassel) and knows every angle for playing the system inside and out.
Initially wary of Copen's friendship and if there's a savage, ulterior motive, the youngster learns fast that the only sense of safety is in numbers. But as one day rolls into the other and the bond between himself and the older man deepens, Decker realises that not even Copen can protect him from every menace.
Buscemi's follow-up to his acclaimed 1996 directorial debut 'Trees Lounge' has sat without a European release for over three years. Given the dross that pours into cinemas by the week, such reluctance to take a chance on this film is a disgrace - and one that becomes greater with every minute of Dafoe's performance.
Adapted from the Edward Bunker (Mr Blue in 'Reservoir Dogs' and a cameo star here) novel, 'Animal Factory' is a character study of a world within a world where every feeling and urge is either amplified or buried - depending on the circumstances. Watching over it all is Dafoe's Copen, the charismatic con whose status is as much due to his brains as the length of his sentence.
Whether Copen sees something of himself or his past in his young charge is never made clear. He tells Decker matter-of-factly, "I probably wouldn't help you if you were ugly", yet adds, "but that's my problem." And his willingness to help is less to do with redemption and more - as he says himself - with a need to feel something.
Whatever consolation Copen derives from his kindess and nurturing, as the story progresses Decker's feelings begin to vaporise. There's the threat of rape, race war on the yard and the prospect that Copen will leave the prison before he does. If that's the case, then Decker has to learn to stand up for himself - especially when Buck Rowan (Arnold) begins to take an interest.
Buscemi's film has that stench of authenticity that so many mainstream lockdown films lack. It was shot in a disused prison, the extras are all day-release convicts and it never sensationalises the arbitrary nature of the daily life faced by Copen and the rest.
What it does lack is a performance by Furlong that's the equal of Dafoe's. Badly miscast to begin with, Furlong mopes along, more tired than terrified, and your sympathies swing far more to Copen's fate as the film progresses.
While there is good (Rourke, Heard) - if underdeveloped – support, this is Dafoe's movie. His wiry presence leaves you in no doubt that while Copen might not be the biggest on the yard he could be the baddest. He's a man it's important to know - but not too much of - and there are some great scenes where you're prepared for his new-found friendship to be soured in an instant by the folly of youth.
Despite the fact that the dynamic in the onscreen relationship owes far more to the older actor, Buscemi's pacing is perfect until the close. Then, as Copen comes up with a plan for himself and Decker to get out, the film becomes rushed and ends in an almost throwaway fashion that doesn't give Dafoe the respect he deserves.
Neither did 'Animal Factory's limbo status since 2000 - but that's one injustice you can put right.