Troubled youth Ron Decker (Edward Furlong, American History X) is sentenced to a ten-year stint in the notorious San Quentin State Prison for a drug-dealing conviction. Inexperienced in the ways of prison life, he’s taken under the wing of Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe, To Live and Die in LA), an experienced con with the entire prison in the palm of his hand – inmates and guards alike. But as Ron grows increasingly cocky in his privileged role as Earl’s confidant, is he in danger of biting off more than he can chew with some of the jail’s more volatile inhabitants?
Based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Eddie Bunker (Reservoir Dogs), Animal Factory was Steve Buscemi (Lonesome Jim, Interview)’s second stint in the director’s chair and sees him marshaling a formidable ensemble cast, including Bunker, Danny Trejo (Machete) and Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler), for a powerful and sincere account of the men caught up in the penal system and the deals they cut with each other, and themselves, in order to survive.
Arrow Video brings Steve Buscemi’s second feature film, Animal Factory, to Blu-ray, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 on this dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz encode comes from a high-definition restoration.
Disappointingly Arrow isn’t doing their own restoration and look to be using an older master supplied to them by Ambi Distribution. While watching the film it is obvious the image certainly isn’t what it could be but considering how the film has been mistreated through the years this still looks substantially better than I was anticipating. It offers a decent film-like look, rendering grain decently enough (a little noisy in places). It’s never razor-sharp I’m sad to say, and there are a handful of scenes a bit softer than most, but despite this I still found detail levels decent enough and the grimy textures of the prison are rendered well enough. The colour palette isn’t the most dynamic thing: there are pops of reds and such but the colours are limited mostly to browns, greens, and pale blues. Black levels are surprisingly decent, offering strong shadow details most of the time.
The restoration itself is a bit scattershot, though: it’s actually quite clean on the whole, but every once in a while we suddenly get these rather large marks and bits of dirt that cluster about. These moments are a bit odd (and may be happening around reel changes considering the timing) and only stand out all the more as the film is actually very clean throughout.
But despite any shortcomings this does still come off looking pretty good. The film never really received a big theatrical release and was sort of snuck out on video under the radar back in 2000, so while a fresh new scan and restoration would be most certainly a great thing in all honesty I think we’re lucky it comes off looking as decent as it does here.
Arrow provides a lossless PCM 2.0 stereo surround track. It’s not overly robust but it is clear, dialogue sounding clear and intelligible, and John Lurie’s score sounding really deep with some great bass; this latter aspect makes it a shame this doesn’t receive a 5.1 upgrade. There is some notable surround activity with some background effects and music but it’s not all that showy. In all it offers a serviceable experience.
Arrow doesn’t pack in the supplements sadly, and based on the specs of the old Sony DVD (which I haven’t seen) it looks as though some interviews didn’t get carried over. But at the very least Arrow does port over that disc’s audio commentary featuring actor/producer Danny Trejo and actor/author Edward Bunker. The unfortunate aspect of the track is that there is a lot of dead space, especially when we get to the film’s final act, but it’s worth waiting these sections out because the two really do have a lot of great and fascinating things to say when they do speak. They talk about the film’s production, getting it together and finding the right director to draw in the actors (they figured Buscemi would be perfect in this regard) and Bunker, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, talks a little about the influences of certain sequences in the film, most drawn on real-life incidents. But the track is at its strongest when the two get more personal. The two have both served time in prison, even serving at the same time in the same prison in the 60s and it sounds as though a friendship developed between the two starting here. Once out of prison Bunker, who started writing in prison, would go on to become a published author and even work on scripts for feature films. He would find himself working on Runaway Train and he would get Trejo a job on that film, leading to his own film career. The two also talk about the prison system, what it should do, what it doesn’t do, and even talk a bit about the social order. It’s unfortunate that there are a large number of dead spots but when the two are talking it’s all great.
Arrow does provide one new feature: an interview with author Barry Forshaw talking about the life and work of Edward Bunker. He had met Bunker a number of times and recalls his personality before going into his novels and his work in film, even getting into Bunker’s thoughts on the adaptations of his novels (Bunker talks a little about this in the commentary, and it’s obvious he’s not all that fond of Straight Time) and his favourite authors. It runs about 21-minutes.
The disc then closes with a trailer, which looks like the kind that would have preceded the feature on a video cassette. The first printing of this edition also includes a booklet featuring a great essay by Glenn Kenny about Bunker, his work overall before focusing on his novel The Animal Farm, and then this film and its performances.
It’s a shame nobody else is able to participate (getting Buscemi would have been especially great) but the content we do receive is solid. The commentary, the interview, and the booklet effectively cover the film and the source novel.
It's a release open to improvement but Arrow has still effectively saved the film from certain obscurity with it. It's still a good edition and well worth picking up.