This article was last modified on December 7, 2017.

Blu-ray Review: “Animal Factory”

A young man (Edward Furlong) goes to prison on a minor drug charge and a tough, older convict (Willem Dafoe) takes him under his wing as a mentor. But does he have ulterior motives?

“Animal Factory” is based on a novel of the same name by Eddie Bunker, who plays the part of Buzzard in the film. The novel was written intentionally for the purpose of becoming a film, and anyone who has read the book will notice a large part of the dialogue is used word-for-word. Though Bunker has been involved with many films, he may be best remembered today for playing Mr. Blue in “Reservoir Dogs”, not coincidentally co-starring with “Animal Factory” director Steve Buscemi.

Bunker, for those who do not know, is not only an accomplished crime writer (and actor), but very much the type of hardened criminal he liked to write about. He had been involved in bank robbery, drug dealing, extortion and more, so he knew what he was talking about. Bunker may be unique as someone who is knee-deep in the criminal life and also a highly educated literary figure. The stereotypical convict is not walking around quoting Goethe.

Bunker knowing his material means not only that the prison life has all the right nuances – how to fake mental illness and the “San Quentin cross”, for example – but also that it is not overdone. Prison films and television shows are wide ranging, and some make the penitentiary out to be absolute hell on earth, with constant violence from both the guards and other inmates. While this is true to some extent, it is often overdone. The real “hell” of a prison is the sheer boredom of nothing to do for years on end.

The book was adapted to film by Bunker and his friend and co-producer Danny Trejo. They had both worked with Steve Buscemi before (Trejo was in “Con Air”) and Bunker liked Buscemi’s debut film “Trees Lounge” (1996), so he was actually their first choice. He, of course, agreed. Bunker had also hand-picked Edward Furlong for the lead, in part for his “androgynous” look. Take that however you will.

Incidentally, Keith Phipps draws an interesting connection between “Trees Lounge” and “Animal Factory”; he notes that Buscemi had developed “a specialty in the form of intimate looks at the day-to-day workings of communities no one would want to join” with “dead-end lives of alcohol-soaked small-towners” in one and prisoners in the other. A bit of a stretch, perhaps, especially considering how constrained Buscemi would have been by Bunker’s script, but if one wanted to find a theme in Buscemi’s directorial work, this is as good as any.

“Animal Factory” was filmed at Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia, which Trejo describes as sort of “gothic” setting because it is a prison from another time when being “penitent” was supposed to mean something. The filming was completed in thirty days, only two days longer than originally scheduled (which is pretty good, all things considered). Buscemi even employed hundreds of prisoners from nearby Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, the prison that replaced Holmesburg Prison in 1995. So yes, those scenes in the yard are at least partially authentic.

This is a great standout performance for Danny Trejo; interestingly, Trejo is the godfather of Bunker’s son, and the two first met at San Quentin State Prison; the duo has been working on movies together since “Runaway Train” (1985). On the flip side of the coin, Tom Arnold is so awful in his line delivery and his moments of cheesy line delivery ruin an otherwise excellent film. Elvis Mitchell says the film is one where Arnold “gives his once-a-decade good performance”, but I respectfully disagree – he went the whole decade without one this time.

The Arrow Video Blu-ray includes a 20-minute conversation with Barry Forshaw, author of “American Noir”, talking about who Eddie Bunker was. In Forshaw’s opinion, Bunker was the all-time greatest American prison writer, and he relishes in speaking about the author. Interestingly, he sees “Factory” as a version of the British series “Porridge” (1974-77), which is obviously coincidental. An audio commentary with Bunker and Trejo is ported over from an earlier release. Beginning to end, this disc is a celebration of Edward Bunker, as it should be.

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