‘Animals’: Brilliant addiction story depicts Chicago with stark authenticity

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When we meet Jude and Bobbie, they’re already ghostly shadows of the golden couple they once were, or could have been.

On their best days, Jude (David Dastmalchian) still has the dashing good looks of a young actor or musician on his way up, and Bobbie (Kim Shaw) is stunningly pretty. They’re both smart and charming, and we’re told they’re college-educated, from middle-class backgrounds.

But Jude has an abscessed tooth that grows more hideous with each passing day, and Bobbie says one of her breasts is painful to the touch, and one or the other is almost always getting “sick” — which is their term for the sweat-soaked, nausea-inducing, skin-crawling agony they experience when they’re out of heroin and desperate for the next score.

Directed by Collin Schiffli and written by Dastmalchian, “Animals” is a stark, brilliant, uncompromising, beautifully acted piece of work that deserves to be mentioned with “Panic in Needle Park” and “Requiem for a Dream” as a cautionary tale about drug addiction that doesn’t glamorize but also steers clear of proselytizing.

To be sure, there are some darkly funny and sexy moments when Jude and Bobbie come across as a low-rent Bonnie and Clyde, but I can’t imagine anyone seeing this movie and thinking, “Heroin. THAT’S the ticket to paradise.”

More like self-inflicted, life-shattering, family-destroying torture.

“Animals” takes place in a Chicago that feels as authentic as any Chicago I’ve seen on film in recent years. You can be in the best neighborhoods in the city, and find yourself sidestepping the homeless and the lost. You can be in some of the worst neighborhoods in the city, and still see glimpses of the magnificent skyline. “Animals” gets that.

Jude and Bobbie are homeless and yet they’re Chicago residents — living out of their beat-up old car, making frequent trips to the Lincoln Park Zoo, roaming from neighborhood to neighborhood in search of a quick con, a store to rob, a place to park at night. (Their version of late-night television is to find a spot on the top level of a parking garage facing high-rise apartments, where they can watch residents working out, making out, drinking hard, etc. It’s a human zoo. )

Bobbie and Jude are pretty slick. They’ve got a variety of moneymaking schemes in their arsenal, ranging from the theft of wedding gifts to an elaborate con involving a “lost” laptop to their last-resort move, where Bobbie poses as a sex worker who visits johns at their homes and coaxes money from them before she actually has to do anything.

The cinematography echoes the emotions of the couple as they careen from high to low to high. When Jude and Bobbie are giddy and feeling the effects of the temporary high, “Animals” looks like a gorgeous, gauze-filtered romance. When they’re crashing, or bickering with each other over the division of drugs, or getting high in disgusting bathrooms, or putting themselves in dangerous situations in search of a score, it feels as if we’re watching a documentary. At times it’s hard to watch.

In one particularly desperate moment, they clock a young mother with a baby. Jude pulls out a needle and says he’ll say he has AIDS and threaten to stab the mother. Bobbie says he should threaten to stab the baby. Then the mother won’t hesitate to comply. Even as she says it, she’s horrified at the person she’s become.

Heroin addicts talk of “chasing the dragon,” i.e., the never-ending and ultimately futile pursuit of the next high, the perfect high. In “Animals,” Bobbie and Jude are at their giddiest not when doing the drug, but in the moment when they score the drug. (After a horrific night where everything that could go wrong does go wrong, Jude reveals to Bobbie that he managed to salvage a couple of bags for them, and she responds, “I f—ing love you so much right now!”)

Deep into the film, John Heard shows up as a security guard/father figure who takes Bobbie under his wing just when she’s at the point of no return. With a lesser actor and less accomplished writing, this might have been a little preachy, but we believe this man would help this young woman out of pure kindness, and also because of the implied backstory of his life.

Dastmalchian and Shaw are equally outstanding. They can be nasty to one another and there’s no excusing some of the stunts they pull on innocent strangers in the depths of their addiction — but we believe they’re in love with one another, and we believe they’re inherently good people who are deeply sick, and we believe they just might survive.

[s3r star=4/4]

Oscilloscope presents a film directed byCollin Schiffliand written byDavid Dastmalchian. Running time: 90minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

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