Animal Factory has its merits, though this modest prison drama doesn't seem that different from the many other films of the genre. Based on the novel of the same name by Edward Bunker, the picture begins when young Ron Decker (Edward Furlong) is arrested, tried and jailed for drug trafficking. Ron is imprisoned in the notoriously brutal Eastern State Penitentiary, where he is immediately viewed as an attractive target by some of the other inmates.
In the hopes of getting an early release from his two-year sentence, Ron enlists the help of Earl 'King of the Yard' Copen (Willem Dafoe). Earl takes a liking to Ron and offers to keep him safe from the other prisoners, as well as to help him with his legal needs. After an incident in which a vicious inmate (Tom Arnold) molests Ron, Ron and Earl retaliate by wounding the man. Later, when they are caught, Ron and Earl face longer jail terms.
With no hope of getting an early parole, Ron takes seriously Earl's scheme to escape from the jail. But the plan to sneak out in the daily garbage truck pick-up goes awry and only Ron makes the getaway, leaving Earl back in jail, probably for life.
Animal Factory says prison conditions are tough. But you knew that if you saw I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Midnight Express, or the recent documentary The Farm. Animal Factory says it's hard to escape from prison. But you knew that if you saw The Great Escape or Escape from Alcatraz. Animal Factory says prison brings out male combativeness and aggression. But you knew that if you saw White Heat, Bad Boys or HBO's 'Oz.' Animal Factory says homosexual culture is pervasive in prison. But you knew about that if you saw Kiss of the Spider Woman or Bent.
Actually, the unrequited love between Ron and Earl is Animal Factory's most memorable aspect, despite the fact the subject is barely discussed and nothing physical occurs between the two characters. The haunting, silent stares between Dafoe and the sullen-eyed Furlong tell a greater story than anything the dialogue, narrative or other actors could convey. (Mickey Rourke's performance as a transvestite prisoner is bizarre and the casting of Tom Arnold as the main villain is also distracting.)
Animal Factory skips a few expository details and tiptoes around some provocative topics-how prison guards (but not officials) collude with inmates and the way racial strife mirrors outside society. (No black characters are given prominent roles.) Perhaps at 95 minutes, the film is just too short to do justice to all these matters, and maybe one needs to read the Edward Bunker novel to fill in the blanks. In any case, actor-director Steve Buscemi deserves credit for getting the gritty look right and putting the generic building blocks properly in place.