Tough love behind bars

Film - Philip Kerr is made to squirm by a prison drama exploring male rape

A friend of mine, a well-known journalist who has started several times to write a novel, told me why he had never finished one: "About three chapters in I realise that what I'm writing is not James Joyce and I can't go on."

No such inhibitions seem to have affected Steve Buscemi in directing his second feature, Animal Factory, set in a decaying penitentiary in America's Deep South. It's a respectable little movie, but then again it's not Each Dawn I Die (1939), Cool Hand Luke (1967), or The Shawshank Redemption (1994). To that extent, you sort of wonder why Buscemi bothered. Still, it cost just $3.6m, which is about one-twentieth of the budget for The Last Castle (2001), a dreadful prison movie starring Robert Redford and James Gandolfini. At the very least this film is better than that one.

There are some good performances here, too, most notably from Edward Furlong, Willem Dafoe and Mickey Rourke; but audiences have stayed away since the film's release in October 2000, and it grossed just $50,000 at the US box office. Until now the film had failed to find a British distributor and, with all due respect to Optimum Releasing, I think it is easy to see why.

True, it's nicely shot, and avoids all the usual cliches for this kind of film; even so, I can't see a British audience finding Animal Factory any more appealing than the Americans did. There are some subjects with which no audience will ever feel comfortable.

A few years ago I pitched an idea to all the big studios about an air crash investigator. A major star was attached to the project and everything looked promising. Naturally, the script included an air crash. This worried the studio heads, who suspected, rightly, that audiences might not like a movie about the dangers of commercial air travel. That was then. These days, it's everyone's nightmare to find themselves on a 747 seated next to a nervous-looking stranger who's wearing a pair of smouldering Nikes.

No less nightmarish for good-looking men such as myself is the idea of going to prison and discovering what really does happen when you drop the Palmolive in the communal showers. That fear of being buggered senseless by a heavily tattooed bodybuilder with a life sentence and a love of gilded youth is pretty much the only real story in this film. But it's hard to stay seated comfortably in the cinema when male rape is on the menu.

It was never like this for Jimmy Cagney, although very possibly it was for Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke. The homoerotic overtones between his character and George Kennedy's ("that's my beautiful boy") now look more overt than they did when the movie was made, back in the more innocent Sixties. It is even tempting to regard the scene where Luke eats 50 eggs as a sort of metaphor for swallowing something altogether more indigestible than albumen.

No such ambiguities attend the fresh-faced young hero sentenced to two years in jail in this prison drama. Right from the word "guilty" in Animal Factory, it is horribly clear that Ron Decker (Edward Furlong) is going to need a pair of chain-mail underpants; but luckily for him, the pretty boy is taken under the wing of Earl Copen (Willem Dafoe), a veteran convict who has manipulated the system to his advantage, earning the respect of the toughest cons and the favour of the crooked guards. Ron quickly discovers that life in the animal factory is not about rehabilitation, it's about survival.

This is the same set-up as Platoon (1986), in which Dafoe played the part of a tough but tender-hearted sergeant looking out for the new meat (in the shape of Charlie Sheen) assigned to his unit. Both Furlong and Dafoe are good, but the film is stolen by Mickey Rourke, who plays the dolorous drag-queen convict Jan the Actress, minus two front teeth (don't ask why), and with whom young Decker shares a cell.

For all that, Animal Factory shies away from the full-on male rape that helped to distinguish John Boorman's Deliverance ("you gotta pretty mouth"). And the uncomfortable truth is that a "little bitch" like Decker would last about a day before succumbing to the same ithyphallic fate as poor, squealing Ned Beatty. Just as unrealistic are the many stabbings, which is something of a surprise. In fact, just a few months after this film was released, Buscemi was stabbed in the head, throat and arm during a bar-room brawl in North Carolina. He's all right now.

About the only thing the film gets absolutely right is the remarkably ineffective, absurdly expensive, grossly inhumane, racially discriminatory, detestable solution that is the American penal system. With more than one million people in US prisons, Animal Factory is at least well named.

Animal Factory (15) is out on general release