Steve Buscemi, with his wry and jabby hostility, is such a vivid actor that few people seem to realize he's becoming a major filmmaker as well. In Animal Factory, the finely tuned prison drama that's his second feature (after Trees Lounge), Buscemi displays a pinpoint humanity, reminiscent of Jonathan Demme, that lays bare the inner turmoil of everyone on screen.
Ron Decker (Edward Furlong), a soft-faced 21-year-old, doesn't belong in prison, but there he is convicted on a marijuana charge, tossed in with men who could eat him alive. Fortunately, he wins the attentions of Earl (Willem Dafoe), a veteran con who has mastered the Machiavellian intricacies of prison society. Dafoe makes Earl a tough-nut sociopath with an oxymoronic streak of restraint. He refuses to turn Ron into his ''punk,'' and the film pivots around this enigmatic grace note of civility in hell. Oddball cameo of the year: Mickey Rourke as a pumped-up drag queen who's like Blanche DuBois crossed with Elmer Fudd. A-