In a relationship consumed by overwhelming addiction and crushing abject poverty, love persists. Surrounded by apathy and indifference, our listless protagonists drift from con to con, scamming their way through life until their next euphoric hit. First-timers Collin Schiffli and David Dastmalchian connect to deliver Animals — an expressive and wistful journey into the lives of two lovers slowly losing their humanity to addiction. Crossing the boundaries of reality, Animals tackles drug abuse from an insider’s perspective by inviting the audience to share in an experience so uniquely alienating, it is impossible to fully comprehend.
Bobbie (Kim Shaw) and Jude (David Dastmalchian) are as lovingly tender as newlyweds. This affection is the first thing director Collin Schiffli wants us to know about them, and it’s only after a prolonged sequence of inaudible cooing and gentle contact that their more immoral sides comes to light. Living out of a beaten-down Oldsmobile, the pair fill days with various (felonious) money-making ventures, from stealing CD’s to the far more dangerous prospect of robbing “Johns” met through a voicemail dating service. A jovial couple who are well-seasoned in the art of petty larceny, the depths of Bobbie and Jude are only touched upon in passing, in particular the latter’s addiction. Through lives filled with uncertainty and an unsettling optimism for the future, our lovers are obliviously stuck in endlessly cyclical lives.
Concentrating almost exclusively on Bobbie and Jude, Animals picks up the story long after their families have become estranged and friendships have been destroyed. Without the additional framing or outside viewpoint, the only eyes through which we see Bobbie and Jude’s life are our own. Some of the heists and restroom shoot-ups are enough to provoke wincing discomfort, but the longer we stay with the pair, the more we begin to grasp their situation. Dastmalchian’s script and Schiffli’s direction put us face-to-face with the ugliness of heroin abuse; those in the audience who do not already view addiction as a disease are passionately implored to reject outmoded attitudes. We acknowledge the relative comfort of their lifestyle; the enormity of the freedom from societal bounds is captivating, and the boundless escapism of “the high” is a compelling consideration. What they are doing is unquestionably wrong, but somewhere along the line, we come to understand why.
There is an undeniable chemistry between Dastmalchian and Shaw that harmoniously fuses the tenderness of love and the gritty harshness of withdraw. The effectiveness of Animals rests solely on their command of the dual nature of rapturous highs and the shivering sickness of abstinence. And in that respect, it completely succeeds. Even when squabbling over packets of heroin or using Bobbie’s body as bait, an unrelenting bond exists between the two. Teaming up for a quick score, Dastmalchian’s Jude brims with an unstoppable temerity at the sight of his beloved; Shaw’s Bobbie displays a warm admiration for her partner’s mental acuity and thieving prowess.
Schiffli’s depiction of the couple is as touching and honest as the performances. By mirroring shots of injection rituals and inviting the audience into their shared fantasy of a comfortable apartment, the director builds a connection that extends far beyond addiction. Comprised mostly of these confidential moments, Schiffli only falters in his choices to use the audience’s growing affinity for the pair to build moments of needless tension during robberies and “bathroom breaks.”
A plea for humanity, Animals beseeches the close-minded to recognize the marginalized and downtrodden as nothing less than people. Regardless of desperate actions taken to assuage a ceaseless disease, these individuals are forgotten members of society that are better served through help and compassion than disdain and pity.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of sunny San Diego, California. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.