US, 2000, 98 minutes, Colour.
Willem Dafoe, Edward Furlong, John Heard, Tom Arnold, Mickey Rourke, Seymour Cassell, Eddie Bunker, Danny Trejo, Steve Buscemi.
Directed by Steve Buscemi.
There have been many prison films, tough, harsh, frightening films. This is one of those, although its material is
generally familiar and does not offer anything particularly new. Its strength is in its performances. Willem Dafoe is
always credible as someone with a dark side. Here he is the 'boss' amongst the prisoners, serving a 25 year sentence, well ingratiated with the wardens, able to deal drugs and to influence any faction in the prison. Edward Furlong is a rich kid drug dealer, sentenced to the prison, who teams up with Dafoe and his clique, learning the ways of the prison, being protected, but flaring up in anger and endangering his parole. One of the difficulties is that Furlong is either miscast or does not give a persuasive performance because his character does not seem to fit his behaviour - almost too nice for the violence, surliness and attacks on authority. The rest of the cast make quite a believable job of portraying harsh criminal elements.
Steve Buscemi, no slouch at portraying seedy villains, directed the film and plays one of the prison officers. The
title of the film seems very pessimistic and we are shown how prison can turn men into animals. However, there are elements that offer some hope for redemption - or, at least, of accepting one's fate.
1. The tradition of prison films? Men's prisons? The prison itself, the yard, the cells, the dining room, showers? The men, their way of life, interactions? This film in the tradition, adding anything new, different?
2. The title, the judgment on prisons and the effect on the men?
3. How authentic the prison, the prisoners themselves, their actions, interactions, the guards?
4. The focus on Ron Decker, the young man, affluent, his background in drug dealing, his sentence to prison? The possibility of a short sentence, good behaviour and release? His entering into the prison - in the ways familiar from prison films? Young, fragile, alone? His being befriended? His being introduced to Earl, asking him for a concert ticket, being self-assertive? His relationship with Earl's group? Their accepting him, moving around the yard with them? The assumptions about sexual relationships? Going to the concert, his work? Earl befriending him, their talks together? Ron's learning the ways of prison? His relationship with his father, in the court, the visit? The threats to Ron and Earl? The drug dealing within the prison, the connivance of the guards? The threats to Earl, the threats to Ron, his getting the knife? The violent attack? His not revealing anything to the authorities? His being put in isolation? Earl and the getting of the better bed, better conditions? The build-up to the hearing, Ron and his angers? His outbursts at the hearing, his further sentence? The return to prison, Earl and his being defeated by the other group, his re-emergence? The plan for the escape, the garbage? The planning, the execution, Ron and his getting away to freedom?
5. The character of Earl, the long sentence, his self-assurance? His dominance in the yard? His dominance of all the prisoners, drug distribution? His friendship with Lieutenant Seeman, going to the office, typing the documents? His ability to forge the documents? His decreeing violence, the confrontation between the other gangs, the murders? His initial attitude towards Ron, befriending him, their discussions, his protecting him? The violence and his saving Ron? Ron saving him? The ganging up against him, isolation, the authorities not able to help him? His illness, his re-emergence? The plan for escape, getting his men to help him, the collaboration, the kitchen, Ron getting in the garbage truck, getting away, the driver coming back and Earl being prevented from leaving? His resignation and his deciding to stay in the prison?
6. James Decker, wealth, busy, too busy to come to court, visiting his son, wanting him out, the assertion about his son? Ron's rejection of him?
7. The characters in the jail: Buck Rowan, going to the discussion meetings, Ron and the discussions, his keeping an eye on him, the sexual assault? Ron and his anger, the attack on Rowan and his death? Jan the actress, the transvestite, Ron sharing a cell with him, their discussions, Jan's philosophy of life and advice to Ron? The other members of Earl's party, their work in the prison, their interactions, support, punishments?
8. The authorities, Seeman and his giving Earl access to the documents, his discussions with Earl, the higher authorities and reform of the prison?
9. The officers in the parole board, their discussions, advice, the running of the prison? The interaction between the outside officials and those within the prison?
10. What insight into prison life? Relationships amongst the prisoners? Drugs, permissiveness, sexual relationships, violence and murders, cover-ups? The possibility of ordinary prisoners surviving in this kind of context? Their being turned into animals in the animal factory?