When Animals opens, Jude (David Dastmalchian) and Bobbie (Kim Shaw) are already circling the drain. Whatever money or home they might have had, whatever family members or friends gave them chance after chance, whatever fun they used to have shooting up together—all that is gone, lost to the joyless, day-to-day struggle of feeding an addiction that offers only a small island of pleasure in a vast sea of terror and uncertainty. Searching for originality in an addiction narrative like Animals is a problem, because these stories of decline and degradation tend to sound the same. So the limited time frame is the film’s strongest asset, because it’s only paying attention to the final hours. That doesn’t keep the clichés at bay entirely, because the broad strokes of Jude and Bobbie’s bottoming out are echoed through sections of Traffic, Requiem For A Dream, and countless other films before it. The differences are more granular, and even those aren’t entirely enough.
One of those differences is the Chicago locale, which Animals treats with the sprawl of a road picture, because Jude and Bobbie live in their car, and never stay in one place for long. Perpetually searching for the next fix, which they typically execute in fetid restaurant stalls, the couple run scams ranging from the petty and simple to the elaborate and high-risk—sometimes depending on their needs, sometimes on their wants. Lifting a dozen or so CDs from a record store may be enough to bridge them from one fix to the next, but Bobbie occasionally rips off suburban men expecting sexual favors, and the two of them pull off a missing-laptop scheme that makes them seem like con artists out of a David Mamet movie. Glimmers of their potential, as individuals and partners, are visible when they’re using their wits to survive, but they’re edging closer to the precipice with each passing day. If just the spit and gum holding their car together falls loose, they’d fall right off the cliff.
There are other compelling particulars, too, like John Heard’s brief but soulful supporting turn as a security guard who shows a little compassion at a perilous time. But Animals could stand to have more of these details. Dastmalchian scripted the film based on his own experiences, but either those experiences are too common to other drug addicts, or he and director Colin Schiffli haven’t figured out how to give the film its own light. The fact that Jude and Bobbie are white people from middle-class backgrounds is one possible distinction, but Animals actually has a stroll near Lake Michigan where the two discuss it openly, and that’s the end of that. Other scenes merely add to a catalog of been-there/shot-up-that moments: Heroin sessions so explicit they could double as how-to guides, harassment and beatings from the men in blue, an unwanted pregnancy, nervous buys in concrete apartment projects, an unfortunate turn toward the poetic at the bookends. Dastmalchian and Shaw, however, are both superb as lovers whose devotion to each other remains unshaken by their otherwise all-encompassing addiction. Their tenderness transcends their situation. Transcending the film they’re in is another matter.