Following last week’s period horror origin story from Macon Blair, Room 104 S3E2: “Animal For Sale” is one of the lighter, quirkier pieces that pop up on Room 104 sporadically. Everything in Room 104 is about the connections between the people who pass through the room, the meanings they find in each other and in themselves, because of those connections. This may be the first time we’ve looked at the relationship between a man and an animal though, so kudos to Room 104 for keeping finding new ways to poke at the human heart.
Patrick Brice is down to direct three of this season’s episodes, but this one he also wrote. He’s a Room 104 regular now, having directed “Pizza Boy” in Season 1, and “Hungry” in Season 2. As I mentioned in my Season 3 preview, the connections of Room 104 extend to the production team also, mainly I think because the Duplasses like working with people they know and respect. It also undoubtedly makes things a lot easier on a show that is produced with the agility and budget that this one is. Brice directed and co-wrote Creep and its sequel with Mark Duplass and directed The Overnight, also produced by Duplass Productions. Both very different in style and genre, but then again, I’m not even sure what genre Creep would be classed as. It’s definitely not the same one as The Overnight though. The one thing they do share is a focus on character, delving delightedly into the mindset of people, whether they are normal, or absolutely psychotic.
This episode is largely focused on the relationship between a man, Allan (Robert Longstreet), and his gorilla. Although Elmer the gorilla doesn’t appear in much of the episode, what transpires is very much about their connection and how it has affected them. For Allan, Elmer has very much become an emotional crutch. He’s been left with nothing in the world, things with his wife having gone “belly up” at some point. Elmer is his world, and that world has become gradually more difficult because looking after a fully grown male gorilla when you live on the road is clearly not an easy task. Allan is played with some finesse by Longstreet who—going back to that spider’s web—had a role in I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore, directed by Macon Blair. He could easily have made Allan far more comedic, and far less intelligent, but what he delivers is a believable character, who you kind of want to hate for mistreating an animal for so long, but end up just really feeling sorry for.
When Sharon (Dale Dickey) enters the story, ostensibly to purchase Elmer and take him off Allan’s hands, it becomes clear quite quickly that Allan really doesn’t want to let him go, despite knowing that he is not giving Elmer the home he needs, and is mostly aware that the things he does to Elmer are really not OK. Dale Dickey (True Blood, Unbelievable) is one of those actors that seems to have worked non-stop for decades, and excels in this kind of role where she manages to make a character convincing in no time at all, and yet, still has a few surprises up her sleeve—or even, as in this case, under her blouse. Allan makes excuses to stall things, tries to test her, and delays her being able to see Elmer because as he says, first impressions are so important.
When Elmer finally does make an appearance it’s impressive how lifelike a gorilla they managed to achieve. Room 104 is a show with a modest budget by HBO standards; it’s definitely no Planet of the Apes. When you look up the bio of the actor playing Elmer then it becomes a bit more clear. Tom Woodruff Jr is essentially the man you go to see when you need quality creature effects. Responsible for the aliens in several Aliens movies, the alien effects in Starship Troopers, Pumpkinhead and specialising in playing gorillas and gorilla effects, this man is clearly worth whatever it costs. You can imagine Mr. Brice pondering the need to actually feature a gorilla in the final scene and realising that unless it looked really convincing, the entire episode really wouldn’t work. “Who can we call who can make a gorilla look sad, yet determined at the same time convincingly?”
Whilst the sight of Dale Dickey flashing her breasts to calm a gorilla is entertaining enough, the real meat of this episode pays off when, after Elmer has tasered everyone, he makes to leave the room, and to leave Allan. All the backstory and character-building has paid off because everything you need to know is in the eyes of Allan and Elmer—an entire history is there in a look that lasts only a couple of seconds on the screen, but seems to go on for much much longer. In it you see, despite the clear mistreatment that has occurred, the love Allan has for Elmer and the attachment Elmer has to Allan. Yes, Allan’s love is misplaced, and he should have let go of Elmer a long time ago, but often in our relationships with each other as humans, we hold on for far longer than we should. Despite treating loved ones badly, and knowing the relationship is not a good one, we cling on, because we fear loneliness more. In “Animal For Sale”, Patrick Brice brings us a very human tale but using a gorilla as a proxy, which is really quite an impressive achievement.