Films about drug addiction are depressingly common. They don’t demand much in terms of budget or scope, often serving as a nice springboard for young writers and directors to find their voices. However, they also typically fail to offer anything new in such a crowded subgenre; which is one of the reasons that Colin Schiffli’s Animals is such a notable surprise. Breaking free from the lack of realism or overdone moral messages that have sunk similar films, Schiffli and writer/star David Dastmalchian focus on character, defining the arc of two people who think they’re the only thing keeping one another alive but may be doing more to drag each other down than they can possibly know.
Dastmalchian, in a truly breakout performance, stars as Jude, the other half of a tragically co-dependent pair with Bobbie (Kim Shaw). In the opening scene, the two are in a hospital, Bobbie expressing serious pain to a doctor who gives her the numbing pills she needs to stop it. On their way out the door, Jude and Bobbie share a knowing smile. They got what they needed. At least for tonight.
Animals is about two severe drug addicts. Unlike a lot of films on this subject, we really don’t see the fall from normal society to rock bottom. This is more like the last few rungs of the ladder than the entire progression. When the film opens, Bobbie and Jude are living in their car, spending most of their time near Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo (the film uses the Windy City brilliantly) or looking through their dirty windshield into the windows of apartments they wish they could live in, and running various scams to get the money they need for their next fix. They steal from any store they can and even have an escort scam in play in which Bobbie goes to a client’s house, tells him that she needs to take half the money out to her partner as a deposit, and, of course, doesn’t come back. As Bobbie and Jude get more desperate to find the next high, their illegal activities reflect that desperation, leading them closer to life-threatening danger.
The bottom of the barrel for Jude and Bobbie drops out when she gets sick, followed by a nasty health condition for him. They don’t exactly have the structure in place to deal with illness, although Schiffli and Dastmalchian walk a beautifully fine line of audience expectation through the majority of the film. We first expect Animals to be a tragic love story; “the couple in love who are torn apart by addiction and tragedy.” And the affection that Shaw and Dastmalchian display for each other feels genuine. They have honest chemistry. And yet these two also undeniably feed each other’s addictions. Should we want them to stay together? Are they like drowning victims pulling each other under the surface? Schiffli expertly bathes Animals in a layer of dread. One feels like the wrong client, the wrong store they rob, the wrong trip to the dealer, the wrong needle—anything could ruin these lives forever in an instant before they get a chance to get clean.
Animals is also refreshingly free of moral messages. It’s hard to believe anyone could look at the saga of Jude and Bobbie and not think twice about their own relation to addiction or that of those they love and yet the film never underlines these themes, which is remarkable in and of itself. Drug addiction films are often bathed in lessons to be learned in the comfort of the darkened theater. Any lessons from Animals feel like they come organically from their characters and the truth of the narrative, not forced on the viewer.
It helps to have two incredibly talented young performers in the lead role. Shaw is very good, although she stumbles a bit with the more emotional material in the final act. Dastmalchian, on the other hand, is the true find here. He has a unique physical presence that reminds one of a young Jeff Goldblum in the way he can come off both as deeply intellectual and a bit left of center in his line readings. We get the sense that Jude wasn’t born in a crack house. He’s well-spoken, smart, and flashbacks hint at an ambition smothered by addiction.
Dastmalchian captures that sense of self-loathing that comes through in the body language of an addict without overselling it. He doesn’t want to live this life but he can’t find a way out of it.
Some will write off Animals before seeing it merely by virtue of the familiarity of its story. Don’t do the same. Don’t approach this as just another junkie movie. It is a character study that reminds me of the first time I saw Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy. And it could eventually herald the arrival of as important a talent.