“Do you ever think we will go swimming?”
Addiction and love, anymore at least, walk the same blurred line. Love, the all powerful and all meaningful noun/verb has lost its potency due to overuse. Likewise, as is common with any addiction, the excessive reliance has led to decreased satisfaction. Animals challenges that viewpoint through hard lives endured by relatively soft people, doing this misdeed and that miscreant act to score their next high to avoid their next low. I think you can be addicted to love, or at least dependent on the idea of it. But as the film proves, you can’t love addiction. Infatuation, adoration, whatever you want to call it. That’s what we see. That’s what is fleeting. Animals is a near perfect and poetic piece of storytelling, refusing to shy away from the cringe-worthy consequences or chilling effects of a life lived from needle to needle and from the crest of one methadone wave to the next, surfing the pipeline of a highway to hell, never caring if they make it out the other side unscathed.
The first impression a film makes and the initial encounter with the characters is absolutely crucial, even vital to its success. It’s the firm handshake with the girlfriend’s father and the politely charming manners for the mother. That moment is important and revealing. Animals is the laced love ballad of Jude (David Dastmalchian) and Bobbie (Kim Shaw). Our introduction to the co-dependent couple finds them rushing into an emergency room, faking an overdose to get a prescription, and fleeing the scene of their half-baked crime. If that’s not telling of their personalities and character drives, I don’t know what is. What follows is 90 minutes of draining, heartbreaking sadness spent watching two decent people become decrepit and decayed. Animals doesn’t ask to you to feel; it makes you. Some may be averse to that aggressive technique, but here it both makes sense and works.
Jude and Bobbie both fill the frame of the entire film, with the only other real character being the surrounding Chicago area. It really is integral to the story and their journey. They get amusement from the animals in the Lincoln Park Zoo (alluding to their own sense of confinement), stroll down the beaches of Lake Michigan, and recede to the South Side ghettos for their next kick. The setting informs us of their emotions and inner thoughts, depicting a lovely middle-class couple gone awry against Chicago’s sunny skyline and the destructive habits leading them to the dilapidated homes of Englewood type neighborhoods. Animals is a combination plate of the defined sense of place from The Panic in Needle Park and the narcotic lust of 2006’s Candy. It’s soul-searching all while residing in a self-contained world of junkie attitudes and hopeless love. The despair in the downward spiral of Jude and Bobbie is enough to cause vertigo.
Much of the film unfolds in close, intimate locations. There is one beautiful transition shot early on, with the couple appearing to be wasting the day in a high-rise apartment, only to wake from their dream/high and find themselves in their old jalopy. And that confinement reflects the very nature of their lives. I was disappointed in myself for not catching that subtle point until I watched interview clips. Dastmalchian wrote the script, itself inspired by his own battle with addiction, and he eloquently brings authenticity to the story even if you’ve never come near a needle or a drug. Jude and Bobbie’s actions are put on full display, like him injecting into his jugular or his testicles and her arranging meetings to con sleazy men out of money. But the focus is on their characters, and with two powerfully matched performances by Dastmalchian and Shaw, they remain the central pieces throughout.
Directed by Collin Schiffli, a fellow native of my hometown Fort Wayne, Indiana, the young filmmaker has such a keen eye for the raw aesthetic that a story like this needs. The visuals transition from lush and sun-drenched to bleak and metallic depending on what is being conveyed. And he never loses Jude and Bobbie to the desperate circumstances they force upon themselves. They are people, there to be observed, like the animals they eyeball behind the zoo’s glass and pens. It’s a revelatory look at the ugly truth we often turn a blind eye to. Animals doesn’t decry drug abuse and neither glamorizes it. By doing so, Schiffli and his talented leads bring to life a story of anesthetized adoration and love that most certainly already takes place in the creases and the cracks all around us.
“We’ve been saying that a long time.”
Rating: 4 out of 5