Animal Factory / Narc

22 03 2006

Watched a couple of really good, gritty movies the other day: Animal Factory (Steve Buscemi 2000) and Narc (Joe Carnahan 2002).

Narc is a muscular, urban cop drama with a timeless edge, directly linked to The French Connection. The blue-tinted streets of Detroit will leave you shivering, while the kinetic opening sequence will nail you to the sofa. Narc keeps the intensity ramped up, even when the pace is dropped, and delivers loads of great moments. One highlight is the split-screen sequence where dogged cop Nick Tellis (Jason Patric) wanders the streets, chatting to real Detroit citizens, all filmed from across the street or hidden in a van.

Ray Liotta is outstanding as is-he-or-isn’t-he good-cop-or-bad-cop Henry Oak. His burning stare demonstrates just how good he can be given decent material to chew on. Liotta practically quivers with tension and suppressed rage. Patric proves his worth as an actor by managing to turn in a quieter, restrained performance and yet not disappearing into the background.

Both are watchably intense and pleasingly hirsute, in a film that kicks your door in, smashes everything up, bounces your head off the fridge a few times and stalks off swearing.

Animal Factory is a prison film that manages to be both meditative and brutal. It has a non-narrative quality that evokes what I suppose the aimlessness of prison must be like. The way the film unfolds so slowly draws you in so much that it’s almost a disappointment when an escape plot jarringly emerges.

The film is also good for evoking the miniature societies, economies and manners that grow in prison. One thing that dominates is the obsession with male rape. As a fresh-faced young thing, Edward Furlong’s Ron Decker lives under constant threat of being raped. This equates with the title, with prison a place for men who go in mere criminals and are factory-processed into animals, whose sexual urges drive them to brutal assaults on their fellow prisoners.

Maybe, then, Animal Factory was the last film Montgomery Brogan saw before appearing as the lead character (played by Edward Furlong this time) in The 25th Hour (Spike Lee 2002). That film shares the same preoccupation with a young white male who will have to spend all his time inside trying to avoid a seeing-to.

But both Factory and Hour balance this stereotype of predatory male sexuality with more complex examples of sexuality. In The 25th Hour, Anna Paquin plays a student who sets out to ensnare a teacher. The teacher, a sweaty, nervous man struggling to fight the urge, is played by, who else, Philip Seymour Hoffman. When it’s her chasing him, is he abusing his authority? Scene-stealing Hoffman gives such a characteristically anguished performance that you have to wonder if he even has a shred of authority left, and why does she even want him?

Animal Factory also has a scene-stealing supporting performance, this time from a revelatory Mickey Rourke. He’s near unrecognisable as jailhouse transvestite Jan the Actress. On the strength of this, Spun, and Sin City, I’d say Rourke is one of the most versatile and interesting actors around today.

Watched the start of the Animal Factory commentary, which had some interesting stuff about Eddie Bunker and Danny Trejo first meeting in San Quentin in the sixties. Bunker is perhaps best known as Mister Blue in Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino 1992), but has also written loads of books and screenplays, including the original novel and screenplay for this film. Trejo is the hatchet-faced Mexican badass from every film that involves hatchet-faced Mexican badasses since about 1993, and has appeared in sixteen films or TV shows for this year alone.

As screenwriter and producer, the pair packed the film with ex-cons, giving Animal Factory a realistic, gritty edge. Watch out, too, for a cameo in the club style from wonky-warbling Antony of …and the Johnsons fame.

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