Over the last decade there has been something of renaissance in Australian cinema, arguably kick-started with the poetic The Proposition in 2005 (Luke Buckmaster wrote an interesting article on the ‘lost wave’ for The Guardian). Films that followed include: The Babadook, Snowtown, Candy, and my choice for your viewing assignment this week, Animal Kingdom (as well as director, David Michôd’s, fascinatingly weird follow-up, The Rover).
Animal Kingdom is a crawling epic set in Melbourne’s blue-collar ganglands about the Cody crime family (based on the real-life Pettingill crime family), and centring on the teenage Joshua ‘J’ Cody. He is introduced to the family’s business and lifestyle as tensions grow between a specialised Melbourne police unit, tasked with keeping an eye on the family, and the testosterone-heavy Cody men.
This film rocked my world when it was released, and introduced me to the recent renaissance in Australian cinema. I am someone who is always obsessed with families on film, especially dysfunctional ones, so the film was always going to appeal to me. What fascinated me most though were the outstanding performances in the film and its role in catastrophically boosting the careers of almost all involved. Every single one of the actors playing the Cody family have gone on to have careers in Hollywood, in particular the phenomenal Jackie Weaver (more on her later). This is such a rare thing to happen and a testament to director, and all around hot property, David Michôd’s vision.
Anyway, I can talk for days about this one so let’s get to it; what did you think?
From the beginning Animal Kingdom sets itself out as an odd film; in the first scene we watch a son (‘J’) overly interested in Deal or no Deal as he stands over paramedics trying to save his dying mother. This also introduces another theme of the film: mothers and sons, family, and being born into something.
Firstly, the film is odd! It had a way of drip-feeding you information that made me feel nervous. The soundtrack helped this sense of unease: very expressive strings but placed in fairly domestic scenes. It also uses popular music in a similar way. As an audience member I liked being put on edge by the film.
The film benefited from some really great performances. I want to highlight Ben Mendelsohn, who perpetuated my sense of distrust with the film brilliantly, and also James Frecheville, who I think, had a really tough job; the film is seen through his eyes and the character he plays is very passive and quiet (except one explosively emotional scene, which really sideswiped me) and he plays it superbly.
The camerawork has an attention to detail that was very effecting. As you said, we are introduced to this dysfunctional crime family via ‘J’ and there is a scene in which a gun is put into his hand, and he is told to point it at some people; the way the camera works in this scene, the way it focuses on the gun tells you that this is the first time ‘J’ has held a gun and it really made me think, “shit, what would I do in that situation?” And when he points it at the guys and they give him respect I really felt a sense of positive reinforcement.
Most of the things I like about this film – raw, interesting and unmediated themes, a passion for the craft- meant I was not surprised when I found out it was the work of a debut filmmaker; I could really see a passionate vision in this film. I also saw many of the plot points coming a mile off: “don’t forget to get some milk,” says a wife as her husband goes to the shop- [spoiler] she never gets the milk. This could also be due to the directors inexperience. Is this narrative predictability an Australian middle finger to classic Hollywood thriller, or am I being too kind?
This is a very theme heavy film – it is like a Modern Greek myth; mothers, brothers, death. What would you say the main themes you took from it are?
I really love the pacing of this. Like a Western, the danger is just waiting in the landscape, waiting for one slip up; for its chance to get you. It’s interesting that you found it predictable, I saw it as an interesting subversion on the classic tropes of the Hollywood gangster film (the head of the family in this isn’t even family). Like you say, the first scene stands out: we are lead to believe that ‘J’ is just watching TV whilst his mum sleeps. Its only when the paramedics arrive that we realise something entirely different is happening. Same too with the, “Don’t forget to get some milk” scene – here we have the film’s biggest star being taken out very early on (spoilers all over the shop, folks!). His status as the big name plays with our trust. As you mentioned, the film constantly plays with our trust, with what we should expect.
There are certainly connections to Greek myths here, and the family, and what that means, play a big part. I also think this idea of the ‘Animal Kingdom’ and our role in the world are constant themes. Detective Leckie even asks ‘J’ where he thinks his place is. And this internal struggle ‘J’ has with who he is and who he should be, the conflict of free-will and fate, or what is just simply out of our hands, is what the plot is anchored on.
I believe there is also an exploration into masculinity and the role of the feminine figure in crime being explored. What do you think ‘Smurf’s’ (Jackie Weaver) role is in the family (how much power does she have really?), and what it says about women and their role in the criminal world?
All the themes that we have spoken about are definitely in the film, I feel that perhaps they are a bit too shoved down your throat. I am especially thinking about Guy Pearce’s ‘animal kingdom’ speech- it’s kind of telling you what the film is about, and, as I say, the excitement of this film stems from the director but also his lack of experience could be the reason for, in my opinion, a lack of finesse in this instance. For my taste, however, I quite like this about it, I like that you don’t have to work too hard to get the meaning of the film, it’s kind of rough and ready: The more I think about it, the more I really like this film, it has a kind of short film vibe to it.
As for the role of ‘Smurf’, I remember when this film first came out everyone was raving about Jackie Weaver’s performance, and it is great- she is ‘chewing the scenery’. She gives off the essence of many different strands of motherhood- protective, nurturing, caring, suffocating, spiteful. She is a universal symbol of motherhood and the film is almost a fable, a warning of the importance of motherhood, and how royally mothers can and do fuck you up. ‘Smurf’ holds a great deal of power, more than even she knows. I’m not sure it’s saying much about women in the criminal world; I think it is more a comment on the power of women in general.
In many ways I think that the crime element of the film is a tool used to discuss the underlying themes we have discussed, what do you think?
I agree there is a whole lot of depth to Jackie Weaver’s performance and she’s so entertaining to watch, even when she is being super creepy and kissing her sons on the lips for an uncomfortably long time… I get the sense that, although her sons would do anything for her, she has a loose grip on control. She is essentially tasked with herding a pack of wolves. Her imposing motherly aura is not always enough to simmer down the hot-rocket temperament of her sons, they are men of instinct and emotion.
I got a real sense of reality from the film, elevating the impact of the film to a more harrowing level, in large part due to: the pacing, the subtle acting, and the way the camera lingers on moments and lets them play out. How does a film like this compare to more mainstream Hollywood depictions of crime families?
I would question whether she wants to simmer her children down; they are their mother’s sons: For me, she is the most animalistic one of the lot.
How does it compare to Hollywood? Well, as I said at the beginning, I think the film is pretty odd and this could be due to the fact it is a thriller in the classic Hollywood sense but seen through an outsider’s lens. The film is familiar but also very unique. I was definitely aware I was watching a foreign film. Unlike in many Hollywood films, the criminals were not glamourised- they were made out to be unhinged and uncool.
This what I liked about it, and is a common trend I am noticing in the films coming out of Australia recently: there is a real commitment to the absurdity in the real. What I mean is there is a heavy focus on the portrayal of real stories about real people, warts and all, but with an emphasis on life’s more bizarre or cinematic moments. And if I were to put on my philosopher’s hat (I’m picturing a dusty old fedora), I would argue it is these bizarre or unique experiences that shape reality.
Yeah I think I agree with what you’re saying; I don’t think the film bothers itself with ‘gritty realism’ like, say, a Ken Loach film. The film can be operatic at times, and very surreal, but it deals with real life concepts and ideas.
Final thoughts?… Excitingly odd!
6/10 | Alex 8/10 | Luke