Based on a true story,” the opening credits to The Factory subtly slip in. We know what to expect in the thriller genre: something that couldn’t be further from the truth. Especially from a film that has gone direct-to-DVD in the US and most other markets (but has somehow earned a small theatrical release in the Czech Republic while Oscar hopefuls languish without a release date).
The true story The Factory is based upon is that of Gary Heidnik, a serial killer who kidnapped six women in Pennsylvania in 1986-7 and kept them captive in his basement, only to be caught when one of his victims managed to escape and phone the police.
Heidnik raped and tortured the women, resulting in multiple deaths; he dismembered one of the bodies and reportedly mixed it with dog food and fed it to the other captives, though this claim has been dismissed. He forced his captives to participate in the torture of each other, stories that have been recounted in the media by the survivors.
In The Factory, which is set in the chilly-cool but underused landscape of a Buffalo, New York winter, the Heidnik character (named “Gary Gemeaux”) is played by Dallas Roberts. In the film’s opening scene, he brings a prostitute back to his flat and – in Friday the 13th slasher movie fashion – guts her with a fireplace poker and pins her to the wall before dismembering the body and feeding it to his German shepherd.
Clearly, adherence to the actual case is not among the film’s priorities. We later learn of the captives in Gary’s basement when – in a stroke of pure luck – he kidnaps the daughter (Mae Whitman) of police detective Mike Fletcher (John Cusack), who has been chasing him for years. Uh-huh.
Roberts is a standout, however, and the scenes featuring him and his victims are the best The Factory has to offer: his Stockholm syndrome relationship with captives Brittany (Mageina Tovah) and Lauren (Katherine Waterston) feels disturbingly real.
Far less interesting is the procedural stuff with Cusack as the detective. In true thriller movie fashion, this is less about police work than random clues suddenly “coming together” in Fletcher’s mind. All the great police shows on TV – Homicide, The Wire, and others – have spoiled us for this kind of stuff. Jennifer Carpenter (Deborah Morgan on Dexter) stars as Fletcher’s partner.
Despite the “true story” lies, most of The Factory is well-produced and reasonably engaging, in a formulaic kind of way. Until the utterly ridiculous ending, which I laughed right off the screen. Without spoiling anything, let me just say this: it sucks.
The Factory bears a number of similarities to another 2013 release also starring John Cusack: The Frozen Ground, which told the true story of Alaskan serial killer Robert Hanson. That film starred Nicolas Cage as the detective and Cusack as Hanson, and bore the same strengths and weaknesses: the procedural stuff didn’t work, though Cusack was engaging as the killer. It wasn’t a great or even good film, but was infinitely superior to The Factory in one regard: it stuck (mostly) to the facts.