By Eric Kohn | Indiewire March 9, 2014 at 10:31PM
The initial scenes featuring young couple Bobbie (Kim Shaw) and Jude (David Dastmalchian) in director Colin Schiffli's "Animals" are so precious that it comes as a shock to discover that they're both heroin addicts. Living out of a decrepit car parked near the Chicago Zoo, Bobbie and Jude team up to keep their habit alive, which at first provides them with enough confidence to ignore the downward spiral they're trapped within. By letting the troubles creep in, Schiffli's accomplished first feature — scripted by Dastmalchian — makes their conundrum both accessible and intimately unsettling at once.
At first, however, their routine flows along as if they've mastered the con artistry keeping them afloat: They spend their days stealing money by relying on convoluted schemes involving fake prostitution and misdirection — at one point stealing an item, pretending it's lost and collecting the finder's fee. Whenever their antics yield more money, they immediately spend it on a fresh crop of drugs. The cycle unfolds with an increasing atmospheric tension, as they seemingly enjoy their carefree lifestyle with no discussion of its potentially deadly consequences. In their fantasy version of events, they live like outlaws, but the threat of the outside world constantly hovers in the bleak context of their overall situation. It's obvious that they'll have to own up to their issues at some point, but "Animals" keeps us in suspense about when that moment could arrive.
While never as alarmingly intense an addiction drama as "Requiem for a Dream," Schiffli's thoughtful character study smartly avoids condescending to its ailing leads; instead, through their companionship, the subjective elements keeping them in denial of their problems become the central narrative thrust. Yet Schiffli doesn't sugarcoat their situation, interspersing various scenes with viscerally unnerving shots of the couple sticking needles into the least withered blood vessels still at their disposal (including, during one particularly icky sequence, a vein protruding from Jude's neck).
Eventually, the story arrives at a typical series of events involving the couple's problems with the law and eventual confrontation with the medical assistance they desperately need. Once it arrives at that point, "Animals" is a fairly routine affair, but its actors continually fight to elevate it. Dastmalchian's creepy visage, last seen as the suicidal suspect in "Prisoners," here takes on softer dimensions in service of the character's ostracized state (as the movie's sole writer, he has managed to craft his ideal vehicle). Jude might be a wreck, but he's just assertive enough to hide it from himself. With the relentlessly supportive Bobbi embracing his search for the next score, Shaw rises to the challenge with a credible degree of restraint. Their plight is complemented by cinematographer Larkin Donley, whose polished images echo the romantic disconnect between Bobbie and Jude's experiences and their sugarcoated understanding of it.
Dastmalchian's screenwriting debut bodes well for an alternative career alongside his performances. While never transcendent, the story's patient rhythms allow for a wholly believable world to take shape before it comes crashing down. Though its eventual resolution lacks the surprise of its earlier scenes, "Animals" largely avoids melodramatic confrontations in favor of quieter moments that reflect the murky frustrations plaguing the couple at every turn. Without a modicum of snark, their relationship is simultaneously a dangerous gamble and something of a survival mechanism; because they seem so self-assured early on, it's hard to imagine they can continue without each other. "Animals" presents that possibility as an intriguing dare and effectively leaves the finale open-ended, concluding with a poetic image rather than any firm outcome. That decision makes "Animals" a lot more focused than its solipsistic protagonists.
Criticwire Grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Screening in competition at SXSW, "Animals" should find a solid distribution deal and solid, if limited returns; in the meantime, it should continue to enjoy healthy festival play.
For more coverage of this year's SXSW Film Festival, go here.