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Buscemi Brings Prison's Grit, Grace to His 'Animal Factory'

November 10, 2000|GENE SEYMOUR | FOR THE TIMES

Actors who direct movies tend, naturally, to be labor-intensive on the performance front, and it's no surprise that Steve Buscemi's "Animal Factory" is distinguished from top to bottom with actors as intensely committed as he is. (Mickey Rourke and Tom Arnold, for instance, play sweet and savage deviants with consummate bravado.)

But this adaptation of a novel by Edward Bunker (whose "No Beast So Fierce" was made into the 1978 Dustin Hoffman prison film, "Straight Time") is also noteworthy for being one of the least sensationalistic--and therefore, more unsettlingly plausible--visions of prison life ever transfigured into big-screen drama.

Buscemi's movie doesn't bleach away the grit, dung and fear associated with life "in stir." But maintained throughout is an almost eerie atmosphere of tension barely contained by stoicism, even a kind of grace. The locus for this mood--and the anchor for the film--is Willem Dafoe's lizard-cool portrayal of Earl Copen, whose unofficial reign as Eastern State Penitentiary's 800-pound gorilla is undisputed even by the black and Latino convicts who have sullenly detached themselves from the prison mainstream.

Dafoe is a proven commodity playing hard guys whose savvy is leavened by tenderness. But neither sentiment nor crassness is allowed to penetrate the thick layers of Earl's contradictions. When the movie begins, a new inmate named Ron Decker (Edward Furlong) is deposited in Eastern's narrow, crowded yard. Ron's a rich kid given hard time for selling pot. The "new fish" looks ripe for gutting, but Earl takes him under his wing and guides him through several safety zones within the prison's perilous infrastructure.

Even the guards wonder if Earl and Ron's relationship is unhealthy. But the bond between them is far less sordid and far deeper than one expects from stories like this. In many ways, Earl seems a better father to Ron than the latter's real father (John Heard), who seems frantic and clueless by comparison.

Dafoe and Furlong play off each other's emotions like skilled session musicians, and their characters' relationship is one of the many subtle ways "Animal Factory" transcends the narrow confines of its genre to say, as the very best prison movies have, how life behind those forbidding walls isn't too far removed from the life that cruises and wobbles along on the outside.

* MPAA rating: R, for language and violence. Times guidelines: More suggestive than graphic, though the violence can be intense.

'Animal Factory'

Willem Dafoe: Earl Copen

Edward Furlong: Ron Decker

Mickey Rourke: Jan the Actress

Tom Arnold: Buck Rowan

A Franchise Pictures presentation of a Phoenician Entertainment and Artists Production Group production, released by Silver Nitrate. Director Steve Buscemi. Producers Julie Yorn, Elie Samaha, Andrew Stevens, Steve Buscemi. Executive producers Allan Cohen, Barry Cohen. Screenplay by Edward Bunker and John Steppling, based on Bunker's novel. Cinematographer Phil Parmet. Editor Kate Williams. Costume designer Lisa Parmet. Music John Lurie. Production designer Steven Rosenzweig. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.

Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.

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