Even in an era where caped superheroes dominate the local movie screens, there’s always room for a good drug movie. Heroin, it seems, is just like Jell-O.
Junkies are, historically speaking, good fodder for movies. I vaguely remember seeing a late night showing of Frank Sinatra in The Man With The Golden Arm many years ago. He shivered and perspired, trying to kick his habit, looking less like a real drug addict and more like modestly talented actor hoping to impress the Academy voters. Drugstore Cowboy made junkies look as dumb and desperate as they probably are, with some surrealism thrown in. Trainspotting turned heroin addiction into an ugly comedy with a rockin’ soundtrack. To their everlasting credit, the makers of Animals don’t go in for nightmare imagery or histrionics. Jude and Bobbie, the two main characters, are just a pair of lost souls being slowly destroyed.
In the wake of those earlier films, viewers might expect to see at least a few scenes of torment and torture, or hear a few screams of anguish. But we don’t see the addicts at their worst, just a few scenes of them shooting up in public toilets. Jude and Bobbie are not exactly Sid and Nancy. They pull off some con jobs to get money, but they aren’t the swashbuckling rebels that have made most drug movies somewhat entertaining. If there’s a resemblance to any couple in previous drug movies, it’s to Al Pacino and Kitty Wynn, the colorless pair from Panic in Needle Park (1971).
I mention those previous movies because the druggie film is a genre in itself, as predictable as film noir or a horror movie, with certain characters going through the same ordeals as those in previous films. All addicts seem to have the same story: they get hooked, they enjoy it for a while, they experience some sort of downfall, and then they try to clean up. Someone dies; someone survives. Animals is no different than the drug films that came before it, though it’s more low key. Jude has rotting teeth. Bobbie thinks she has breast cancer. They live in their car and they’re running out of money. Jude loves her, and often stares at her with moony eyes. She appears to love him, too, but she’s harder to pin down. Then again, he gets her to pretend to be an escort so they can rip off unsuspecting guys. Is she doing it for him, or the junk?
The movie has a soft-edged, dreamy effect. It never quite gains momentum, and the few dramatic events are small. The story might have made an interesting memoir, but as cinema it feels light and airy. Still, it’s more watchable than most of the ‘indy’ stuff that has come down the pike in recent months.
This may be because of the terse screenplay by David Dastmalchian, who also stars as Jude. The story was allegedly personal to him, though I don’t know to what degree. Jude appears to be a naïve bumbler, quickly coming up with seedy ways to make money even though he claims to have come from a privileged background. At one point he wonders how a well-to-do white kid became addicted, ruminating briefly on his cultured background. He doesn’t go any deeper than that, which is just as well. Dastlmalchian and director Collin Schiffli are more interested in showing people trying to get out of the trap, than falling into it.
Bobbie is less contemplative than Jude. She’s in love the way a teenager is in love. She probably loves him because he’s always telling her how wonderful she is. But she doesn’t take advantage of his worship. She’s a pretty good sport, considering they spend most of their nights sleeping in the front seat of his old shitbox. At one point we see Jude straining at the toilet, suffering from constipation. “How’d it go?” Bobbie asks later. “Not even an M&M,” he says. Only a couple truly devoted to each other could engage in such dialog.
As Bobbie, Kim Shaw is playful and believable as an object of desire. She never seems quite as smart as Jude, though she proves in the end that she’s a survivor. Jude, though he seems more intelligent, proves in the end that he’s not as smart as he thinks. Loving Bobbie and trying to maintain a heroin addiction proves too much for him. I like the way he takes it, though. He may turn out to be a reasonable, decent man.
Fortunately, neither kid dies. Had this been a 1970s film, one of them would’ve croaked, to be sure. At the very least, a baby or a puppy would’ve died. Instead, it’s 2015 and people are a bit less fatalistic these days. The other curse of indy films circa 2015 is that the makers of the movie fear going over the top. The film, at times, tries so hard to be unemotional that it flatlines. This is a mistake, because Jude and Bobbie are so insipid that there should’ve been something loud or violent keep us interested. Jude lingers around some shady drug dens, and has a run in with some cops, but that isn’t enough. Why do we remember Easy Rider? Because everybody gets blown away in the end.
Still, I liked Animals. It is the movie it wanted to be, and even if it doesn’t say much, it does so in its own voice.