Animals opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, May 22. Their Friday screening features actor David Dastmalchian and director Collin Schiffli in attendance for an audience discussion. For additional ticketing information, click here.
The camera looms on a couple as the Chicago sunrise fills their bedroom. The view of Lake Michigan seems to be coming from one of the complexes that populate a half-mile stretch of Sheridan Road, a stream of studio apartments that have the benefit of overseeing the lake. Undergrads from Loyola University often find themselves spending their four years overlooking the galvanizing view. And then they go. The community is temporary, awaiting a new set of students to muse over the sight. Colin Schiffli’s Animals sees its central couple – Jude (David Dastmalchian, who also wrote the film) and Bobbie (Kim Shaw) – wake to this panorama. Yet as Bobbie pushes the curtain to the side, the swell of light consumes them both.
A startling match-on-action edit occurs during this sequence, where Bobbie pushes the curtain, only for a cut to occur. They’re not in an apartment, but in a car; she’s not pushing back the cloth curtain, but a piece of cardboard erected to block the windshield. Jude and Bobbie are junkies, looking for their next fix, living out of their car. Drifting along Chicago’s southside, the two occupy their time with petty thefts and cons, all in a concentrated effort to score. From stealing and reselling CDs to broaching wealthy suburbanites for money in exchange for sex, Jude and Bobbie’s exploits are tied directly to the geographical and socioeconomic composition of Chicago – where the distinction between southside deviance and northside opulence are covertly distinguished.
The film’s rhythms dictate that for every positive in Jude and Bobbie’s life, a corresponding negative must occur, with each downward spiral amplified for dramatic effect. Yet the recurring thread tends to go hand-in-hand with their locale. We often see the couple at their most vibrant when populating the northern concaves of the city – walking along the lakefront path near the Lakeview area or assimilating with zoo goers at Lincoln Park Zoo. The clarity of these sequences lends itself to the dreamscape that’s developed from the start of the film. Jude and Bobbie enter the northside to experience a high devoid of drugs – to brush shoulders with a perceived right. As Jude explains to Bobbie as they roam the lakefront, they could not have been born into more ideal circumstances: both white, both bred from middle class families. Yet before either could elaborate on the circumstances that have prevented them from inheriting their perceived cultural birthright, we see the couple commit a theft. For them, the normal incentives to getting out of bed no longer apply, as their birthright is unattainable through the usual avenues. To quote Saul Bellow, another man who roamed Chicago in an aimless stupor, “there are times when I am not aware that there is anything wrong with this existence”. For Jude and Bobbie, drugs are their means of coping with the void of their promised futures.
It’s in the southside where we see Jude and Bobbie buy drugs. It’s where we see them at their most desperate and disparate. And it’s where the on-the-nose title comes from – seeing Jude and Bobbie at their most virile is not unlike the images of animals that populate throughout the film. You’ll see images of vacant lots, covered in litter and weeds in Animals. It’s a destitute landscape of poverty and criminality. It’s been described as a warzone, where more deaths occur there on a monthly basis than they do in our wars abroad. It’s the southside of Chicago. Of course, it is the not real southside of Chicago, but the socially wrapped and delivered one presented to you in Animals, where the mirage of northside security is threatened by southside hoodlumism. And it’s here where distinguishing between whether Animals is clever or socially dubious gets a little murky.
Isolating the film’s drug-addled concerns between the legitimate divisions of the city is a stroke of genius, effectively dramatized by Dastmalchian, the actor, and Shaw. But Dastmalchian, the writer, can’t help but succumb to simplistic dramatic measures to carry out his narrative ambitions. The delicacy of the film’s opening sequences is a fleeting experience compared to the clumsiness of its closing act, whereby our junkies’ odyssey reaches its typical rock-bottom-to-redemption cycle. Entrenched in cliché, I was reminding myself of the film’s opening passages to recall something genuinely new – the latter half of the film could arguably take whole sequences from films like Requiem for a Dream and The Panic in Needle Park without tripping up on narrative continuity.
Yet most disappointing is how the film never reconciles its relationship to the city nor its thematic vitality to the material. The film’s conclusion sees Jude and Bobbie swim in a hospital pool, a redemptive moment meant to cleanse them of their past vices and embrace their newfound future apart. It also echoes an earlier sequence involving manatees. If that in itself doesn’t inspire a SMH out of narrative bluntness than I’m clearly less tolerant of such grandiose gestures. What we find in Animals is an exercise in taking the easy way out, of avoiding the commitment it makes toward exploring Chicago as a densely occupied metropolis distinguished by distinct social, economic, and racial divisions. In its place is a literal-minded metaphor for human carnality and vice that’s weightless and inconsequential.