Brutal life inside 'Animal Factory'

Prison picture isn't pretty, but is it powerful

Conventional wisdom says a bankable movie has to include a love story, or exotic scenery, or at least a pretty face or two. Certain genres evade these traditional selling points, though, which may be why we don't see them very often on the screen. How many prison pictures have rolled through the Hollywood pipeline lately?

It isn't likely that the makers of "Animal Factory" expect it to rack up many box-office dollars, but what they'll lose in revenues they'll make up in clear consciences. At a time when much of the United States seems to regard jails, prisons, and penitentiaries as magical panaceas for contemporary social problems, here's a movie that dares to suggest the opposite - contending that correctional institutions may be not only overrated but downright counterproductive, turning already troubled citizens into desperate, hardened brutes with more propensity for wrongdoing than they ever had before.

Adapted by John Steppling and former San Quentin inmate Edward Bunker from Bunker's novel, "Animal Factory" focuses on a 25-year-old man named Ron Decker, whose single bad mistake - getting involved in the drug trade - draws a heavy penalty when a politically ambitious district attorney decides to make an example of him. He lands in a penitentiary where the inmates follow a harsh Darwinian code based on race, sexuality, and sheer physical strength.

Decker is savvy enough to befriend a longtime inmate named Earl Copen, whose rough-and-tough reputation protects his proteges from predators. Copen encourages him to do his time quietly and get out fast, but he falls prey to a series of unavoidable catastrophes that get him entangled with the prison's worst elements. The lesson is plain: While penitentiaries may be necessary evils, they're also manufacturing sites for the very evils they purport to oppose.

"Animal Factory" gets much of its power from Willem Dafoe's potent portrayal of Copen, a complex man who would surely have contributed much to society if the criminal-justice system had sent him to a human-being factory instead. Applause also goes to Edward Furlong as Decker, John Heard as his father, and Seymour Cassel as a sympathetic guard.

The film's other key asset is Steve Buscemi's imaginative directing, which blends hard-hitting visual qualities with great emotional energy and a refusal to let the story's message get lost in the gut-wrenching violence that runs through it. This is Buscemi's second film as a director, following the imaginative "Trees Lounge," and it reconfirms his talent behind the camera. He deserves more chances to prove his merit even if "Animal Factory" proves too serious and committed for its own commercial good.

Rated R; contains strong violence and vulgarity.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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