Animal Factory is a prison drama from 2000, directed by Steve Buscemi (who is also in the cast in a supporting role).
I actually have a certain amount of experience with prison. I’ve never been incarcerated, but I spent a few years volunteering at a maximum security prison on a weekly basis, in a social program organized by some of the prisoners wherein prisoners and volunteers learned about each other’s worlds. The idea—if I may oversimplify—was to keep the prisoners from completely losing contact with the values and lifestyles of the outside world while facilitating the volunteers seeing prisoners as individual human beings and not scary, evil abstractions.
I got to know a number of the guys fairly well. I can honestly say some of them became friends of mine, in fact. I ended up writing an oral history book with some of them, about the prison experience.
So, there’s that. But that certainly doesn’t make me some kind of expert. I suppose it’s true that I know more about prison than the average person who has never done time, but I wouldn’t claim much beyond that.
It also didn’t give me any illusions about my being able to handle being a prisoner, if it ever came to that. I am in many ways the kind of person who would be least well equipped for the experience. I am fiercely attached to freedom and autonomy, disinclined to obey authority and behave in an orderly fashion, used to a middle class or above existence, lacking the habits and street smarts and such that come from being used to a criminal lifestyle, resistant to compromising my principles and “going along to get along”—I could go on.
On a scale of 1-100, where 1 is the person who fits least well in prison and would fare worst, and 100 is the person who fits best in prison and would fare best, before I ever had the years of experience as a volunteer maybe I would have been something like a 5, and armed with everything I picked up in those years as a volunteer maybe I would be more like a 15. So almost certainly some improvement, but still a low to very low score.
One thing I picked up is that in prison, to some extent, you have to go looking for trouble more than trouble comes looking for you. As one of the closest friends I made amongst the prisoners explained it to me one time, the guys who get in trouble are the ones who want to be a part of the action—to get involved in the hustles, to try to get drugs, to be a tough guy and be part of the in crowd—and then find that they can’t handle it because the shit’s suddenly too heavy and they want out. You don’t get recruited for the high risk/high reward prison activities, he told me, you pretty much have to go looking for them.
If you’re not suited to be one of the big shots and you know it, generally your best bet is to keep your head down, keep your mouth shut, mind your own business, and “do your own time.” You earn a certain amount of respect just by doing that. Now, there’s no guarantee; it’s not like people who live their prison life like that never are victimized, never have difficult situations to deal with. But for most prisoners it’s probably the most promising path.
But also, the specifics vary greatly from prison to prison and from time to time. There are prisons, even prisons with reputations as being among the toughest, where you’ll probably survive OK with the “do your own time” strategy. But not all prisons. In some prison environments you can’t be neutral and just keep to yourself; you’re highly likely to be victimized if you don’t join with a group, and then do all the things necessary to remain a member in good standing of that group.
This variation can make it hard to say whether a given depiction of prison life—like that of Animal Factory—is realistic or not. Again, I’m no expert, but I’m inclined to say that there are prisons quite a bit like in this movie, and others that aren’t like this movie at all. Whichever type of experience you’ve had—if either—would probably determine whether Animal Factory strikes you as impressively accurate or as sensationalist bullshit.
On the whole, though, my sense is that this movie is quite good at capturing the general atmosphere, the social dynamics, the psychological effects, etc., of prison.
As far as the story, Earl (the consistently very good Willem Dafoe) is a long timer who has worked his way up the prison hierarchy to be one of the main movers and shakers among the convicts. He has a certain amount of pull with the administration as well, as he has cultivated mutually beneficial relationships with certain staff members over the years. (Not in the sense of snitching or anything like that, but for instance in his work at various prison jobs, he’ll do extra for some staff members, help them cut corners on some of what they’re supposed to be doing—as they in turn do for him—etc.)
He semi-jokingly says he “runs” the prison. That’s an exaggeration, obviously, but he’s made about as good a life for himself as one reasonably can in such awful circumstances.
Earl is in an informal little gang or clique with four or five other guys, where he is sort of the leader, and sort of an equal partner. They are white and Hispanic. They aren’t fully affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood or any larger, race-based, entity, but some of them seem to maintain at least some relationship with the Brotherhood.
A young, new prisoner, Ron, arrives at the prison. He’s not fully a square, but he’s closer to it than most prisoners. He’s in for probably a few years on a drug charge, but it could end up being shorter or longer based on various factors. He’s white and from a family that’s at least reasonably well off, so there will be credible efforts from the outside to get him out sooner rather than later. Of course there’s also always the factor of how he behaves on the inside, as far as whether he does what’s required of him to earn an early release or gets into trouble and has additional time tacked onto his sentence.
Ron is soon accepted into Earl’s little group, with Earl taking a liking to him and taking him under his wing.
Through observing Earl’s wheeling and dealing, Earl and Ron’s developing relationship, and the adventures of Earl’s little gang, we gradually learn about prison life. There are incidents of violence, corruption, racial conflict, attempted escape, and more. There are attention-grabbing side characters, including Mickey Rourke as a drag queen (somewhat sympathetic in a pitiful way, probably harmless) and Tom Arnold of all people as a rapist (decidedly neither sympathetic nor harmless).
But aside from the specifics of the plot, as I say I think it does a good job capturing some of the peculiar dynamics of prison life. I’ll talk a little about some of those that came to mind as I watched the film.
I mentioned earlier the phenomenon of potentially needing to bond with others so that you cannot be picked off and victimized as an individual. That appears to be a necessity in this particular prison, hence the value for someone like Ron in connecting with Earl and his partners.
Or I suppose it may be that someone like Ron could keep to himself and “do his own time” and be OK, but that he’s led to believe otherwise by his initial experiences and so never really tries that option. But in any case, whether because he has to or because he thinks he has to, he soon enmeshes himself with a sort of gang, for better or worse
And it’s definitely both for better and worse to establish such associations. That’s maybe the most important message of the film about prison. As Ron goes from being completely clueless to finding his place, it turns out that the sorts of things that give him the best shot at a more tolerable existence on the inside (a better prison job, more enjoyable social and recreational activities, less loneliness, less likelihood of being victimized, more respect from his peers, etc.) also make him more likely to stay in longer and to reoffend and come back once he does get out.
In short, it hardens him into more of a criminal.
But in a way that’s too simplistic a description. Because really it’s a lot more ambiguous whether the changes we see in him are good or bad. For even as he’s getting worse in some respects (more comfortable with violence, more comfortable with prison itself, less respectful of the law), he’s also manifesting virtues of friendship, loyalty, physical courage, being true to one’s word, resourcefulness, and more.
I mean, I saw plenty of that in my time as a volunteer. Some of the guys who had spent most of their life in prison and were most fully adapted to it were also people I thought most highly of and respected most in certain ways. At the same time, I was always aware that becoming “good” at being a prisoner could take you farther away from what you needed to be in order to make it on the outside.
There’s always that tension—and you see it in Ron and the other characters here—of “What do I need to do to have the best life I can while I’m here in prison?” versus “What do I need to do in order to get out of here and to be less likely to return?” And I’d say the first tends to win out over the second more often than the other way around.
You know, people would ask me, when they found out I spent considerable time with prisoners, why the recidivism rate is so high. They were puzzled that criminals could be so stupid or evil or both such that no matter how high we make the cost of crime (in terms of how severe the punishment for it is), they just keep reoffending. Why don’t they ever learn?
And my response was that by putting people in prison, we place them in an environment where the costs and benefits of developing and sustaining certain tendencies, habits, values, etc. favor some of the very things we supposedly least want to see in people. Prisoners are shaped by that environment—i.e., they’re “learning” exactly what we’re teaching them.
Another thing the movie captures well is the paranoia of prison, especially for a newcomer. So many people, both staff and fellow prisoners, are looking to trick you in order to exploit you in some way that it can be utterly confusing and overwhelming to look for a path through the bullshit.
Someone gives you some advice. Should you follow it, or will following it make you vulnerable to them or someone they’re allied with? Someone gives you some information. Can you trust that that information is accurate, or is there a reason they might want you to believe something false? It’s damn near impossible to figure stuff like that out if this environment is totally new to you. Yet the stakes can be very high. Choose wrong and you might be killed, be raped, get an unfavorable reputation that will be with you the rest of your life as a prisoner, have your sentence increased, etc.
Ron recognizes that Earl has done him multiple favors and made his existence in prison a lot more tolerable. But why? Is there an ulterior motive? Is he being enticed into some undesirable arrangement with Earl that he doesn’t realize he’s implicitly agreeing to by accepting favors and won’t be able to get out of? Is this all a ruse to ultimately victimize him?
He doesn’t know. And he knows that he doesn’t know. It’s an uncomfortable ignorance.
You also see in the movie the aforementioned incentive to find a group to join so you’re not like the lone prey without a herd that any predator can come along and snatch, and how these groups are often based around race and characteristics like that, and hence function to aggravate racial and other tensions.
So, for instance, in one scene some prisoners stage a spontaneous strike for better conditions on their prison jobs and in their lives in prison in general. Many if not most of the prisoners who learn of it are inclined to join them. Strength in numbers after all; maybe it’s a chance to use pressure to get some positive changes.
But then they notice that almost all the strikers so far are black. That’s fine for the prisoners who are considering joining them who are also black, but it gives the others pause. If the strike is a “black” thing, then are they showing disloyalty to their own group by joining it? Do they really want to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with people who yesterday were and tomorrow likely will again be their adversaries?
In the end, few white prisoners join the strikers. In fact, soon enough it degenerates into racial violence, eliminating any chance the strike could succeed in garnering any benefits for the prisoners.
In a way the racial group loyalty is stupid—for one thing it makes it a lot easier for the authorities to pursue a “divide and conquer” strategy—but what are you supposed to do if you’re in an environment where you either join, say, the Aryan Brotherhood and live by their ideology and fight their fights with them, or you allow yourself to be victimized as a lone individual with no one to watch your back?
Perhaps as intriguing as anything in Animal Factory is its exploration of the kind of ambiguous prison relationship that develops between Earl and Ron.
You know, what exactly is going on there? As I said, Ron himself doesn’t know, but due to the aforementioned (justified) paranoia he is understandably suspicious of the worst. When Earl pulls some strings to get Ron moved to a cell on his cell block, Ron isn’t sure whether to go along with it or to resist.
Maybe Earl is an out-and-out rapist and is trying to maneuver Ron to where he, or he and his gang, can force himself on him. Maybe Earl is trying to maneuver Ron into a consensual sexual relationship, but will fall back on coercion if consent is not forthcoming. Maybe Earl is trying to maneuver Ron into a consensual sexual relationship and will not fall back on coercion if consent is not forthcoming, but we can still recognize from the outside that any such “consent” is so strongly influenced by the circumstances that it’s not really consensual and so sort of rape after all (like a slave woman “consenting” to sex with a slave owner). Maybe Earl has no sexual designs on Ron at all, but desires a sort of quasi-sexual or quasi-romantic relationship where Ron fits socially and emotionally into more of the conventional “girlfriend” role in their relationship albeit in only non-sexual ways. Maybe Earl just wants Ron as another male friend, like his other friends in prison, where there’s nothing sexual or quasi-sexual or anything like that involved. Maybe Earl wants a mentor type relationship, or father-son type relationship, with Ron that’s not a friendship of equals. Maybe Earl has no personal interest in Ron whatsoever but is pursuing some long term exploitation strategy because he somehow sees Ron as being potentially useful to him in obtaining money, drugs, an escape opportunity, or some other impersonal benefit or benefits.
I don’t think the film ever fully removes all the ambiguity surrounding their relationship and Earl’s motives. But it does provide certain intriguing clues—albeit some of which require taking things Earl says at face value, and you can never rule out, especially in prison, that his words should not be so trusted—that imply that the truth lies in a certain psychological gray area heavily influenced by the prison environment where even Earl himself cannot be fully sure what exactly is going on in their relationship.
I’ll hold back on citing specifics about that—though one line in particular that Earl utters stands out to me—so as not to venture even deeper into spoiler territory. But suffice to say, this angle, this psychological dynamic between the two central characters, is as interesting and significant to follow and speculate about as anything in the movie.
Animal Factory held my interest throughout. Just as an action movie, it had me consistently caught up in what was going to happen next, how certain adrenaline-producing situations of danger were going to be resolved, etc. But in its depiction of the human dynamics of prison life, I believe it has significant value at a deeper level as well.