Movie review: 'Animals'

Boy meets girl meets needles in the bleak but terrific drama “Animals.”

COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
Updated 5/14/2015

In the quietly devastating indie “Animals,” the two romantic leads are smart, rambunctious Jude (David Dastmalchian) and pretty, soft-faced Bobbie (Kim Shaw). There’s also a third, played by heroin, an irresistible siren that hushes the junkies’ harsh hangovers while pulling them to the worst pain of their lives.

At first the sentimental boyfriend and girlfriend generate a lot of sympathy. Jude is funny and sad in ways that make Bobbie want to kiss him. Meeting them is like encountering someone pleasant who slowly rolls up a sleeve and starts picking at the drug scabs underneath.

Collin Schiffli’s accomplished directorial debut extracts much of its power from inviting us to understand them through observation or hints, not fact-laden exposition. Much of the film is a fascinating guessing game. Can things get better for the pair? Could they get worse?

Bobbie and Jude live unemployed in Chicago, giving each other mutual support just above rock bottom. At times it’s upbeat laughs in Jude’s fading sedan, their barricade against full-scale homelessness. When they’re not scoring dope, they visit the caged creatures in the Chicago Zoo, whose imprisonment echoes their own. Then it’s partner-in-crime teamwork as they pull off scams to hustle money for another fix.

As the film moves ahead, the couple become more abrasive. They can effectively con the emergency room doctor with access to powerful prescription painkillers, or the affluent john who offers to pay Bobbie to make his suburban home an overnight cathouse. The only people Jude and Bobby treat with honest trust are each other. But the truth is they admire each other. They love heroin.

While this seems an impossibly bleak topic, “Animals” takes it up with subtlety, imagination and conviction. It is often distressing but eerily beautiful when the pair view the world from on high. It is even more impressive that Dastmalchian (from “Prisoners” and this summer’s “Ant-Man”) drew his gifted lead performance and excellent script from his own addiction background a decade ago. When Jude, running out of active veins to inject, sticks needles into untouchable parts of his body, one can only hope that the scenes were not drawn from the actor’s experiences.

“Animals” never feels like a neophyte’s first draft. It vividly embraces difficult, uncommon characters, making them feel real and worth our attention. Schiffli knows when to make a space grimy and uncomposed, and how to use home magazine slickness to advance the story. Shaw is strikingly good, whether she’s confidently throwing a swindle or so drug-starved that she tries to melt a spoon of heroin in a raunchy cafe’s dirty women’s room. She and Dastmalchian give us characters whom we hope for, and the film, which has heart, pushes them to learn important lessons by the conclusion.

The film explores difficult subject matter so intelligently that I left basking in the afterglow of a strong, well-crafted, wonderfully acted drama.

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