dir: David Michôd
It’s not entirely clear why the film is called Animal Kingdom until past the middle of the flick, when Guy Pearce’s character has to explicitly spell it all out: everything in nature, like in the Australian bush, inherently knows its place. There are trees that live for thousands of years, and insects that die in the space of time it takes to think of them. There are predators and prey, the strong and the weak, and they all have to compensate accordingly.
It’s a moment of exposition that sounds superfluous, because it’s rarely a good idea to explain your title, but it’s used wisely. It’s used by a character who thinks he has the measure of the person he’s speaking to, who thinks this is the best way to convince him to go along with his program.
He couldn’t be more wrong.
Australian cinema has often gone to the crime well to come up with its quality television programs and movies, and this flick certainly doesn’t come up dry. It’s as good as a lot of reviewers are saying it is, but what I failed to glean from other people’s comments and analyses was how emotionally complicated it is, how tension-filled and how grim. And how little it compromises.
Yes, it deals with a family of crims, but this isn’t a mob style organised crime story, or the tits and violence concoction that is the Underbelly franchise. In fact it’s the complete antithesis of all that trashy splendour. It’s mostly a story about a kid called Josh, who calls himself J (James Frecheville), who, upon the death of his mother, moves in with his grandmother and uncles.
His uncles are hardcore crims, of the armed robbery variety, but in the main, they’re reasonable guys. The eldest brother, though, is operating on a different level than the rest, implied as being related to mental illness. Or the fact that he’s a truly ruthless bastard.
Though they call him Pope, Andrew Cody (Ben Mendelsohn) is introduced to us in an innocuous way, seeming, like the rest of the brothers, to be a remnant of an earlier age. He’s not exactly strapping on metal armour and taking on the cops at Glenrowan, but he seems lost during a conversation with his brother Barry (Joel Edgerton), as they wonder about alternatives to their current method of income earning. Barry recommends that Pope invest in stocks online, and Pope, confused, talks about not even having a computer.
The problem they face is not the desire of the police to arrest them for their many crimes: it’s a more uniquely Australian problem, at least in the way that history has been transmuted for the purposes of grounding this story.
Mention is made of the Armed Robbery Squad, a special police unit that has essentially decided it doesn’t want to go to the trouble of arresting and prosecuting these crims anymore: they just want to kill them. It’s not even the fact that many of them are unspeakably corrupt: in fact one of the drug squad, the cop that tells one of the less stable brothers, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), that the Armed Robbery Squad are out to end them, is involved in drug dealing with the family himself.
And J sees all of this. He’s not blind to what’s going on around him: far from it. He sees and knows everything. The problem is, he seems like none of it affects him.
At the beginning of the film, he’s sitting on a couch, blankly watching the truly awful game show Deal or No Deal. It looks like his mum is asleep next to him after a hard day’s work. When the paramedics turn up and start trying to revive her, we understand that something’s wrong, but we wonder as to why the boy seems so unaffected.
He goes through the rest of the flick looking blank, and mumbling his responses, essentially doing everything he’s told, but we don’t perceive him as being stupid or easily led. It’s clear that he understands that his uncles are dangerous men, and though he doesn’t necessarily want to be like them, he sees the value in coexisting harmoniously in their natural habitat by doing what they ask, especially when Pope is giving the instructions.
Although he seems menacing from the start, with time Pope becomes downright terrifying. I don’t mean he looks like Christopher Walken at a kindergarten or something equally horrific: he exudes an unsettling aura which is exceeded only by his actions. Seeing as he’s the alpha in this jungle of a family, there’s no-one who can either dissuade him from his path, or assuage his paranoia. In a scene where he’s murdering a poor innocent, the most one of his brothers can do is throw a couch cushion at him and say, “Oh. Don’t.”
But Mendelsohn’s not even the most unsettling portrayal in the film. The matriarch of the family, very much based as she is on Kath Pettingill, is the actual monster at the top of this food chain. Her creepy love of her sons, and her absolute determination to get her way, especially as it relates to protecting her sons, means she has no limits, that there are no actions beyond the pale, the least of which involves murder.
In an early scene she explains how silly it was that she and J’s mother had a falling out which resulted in their estrangement. They’d been playing a card game of 500, and disagreed about the rules regarding the playing of a joker. They fell out over it, and didn’t speak to each other for decades. She relates it in a rueful way, as if to say that she’d been foolish to make such a big deal out of something so unimportant, which meant she wasn’t part of J’s life growing up.
What she’s really telling J is this: Do things my way, or I’ll fucking kill you.
The people involved in making this film make strong decisions throughout, and one of the best was having Jacki Weaver underplay her delivery, so that she sounds like sweetness and light even when she’s goading the cops or ordering hits on members of her own family. The honeyed voice never hides the steel in her resolve, and it’s a fantastic portrayal. The way she kisses all of her sons: too intimately, with a touch more than maternal affection, is enough to put us all on edge.
That the film closely incorporates elements from reality, as in, that it seems to parallel the Walsh Street murders, the history and downfall of members of the Pettingill clan, Victor Pierce and all the rest, is not, in my book, either to the flick’s benefit or detriment. The supreme advantage it possesses is that, as a Melbournian, whenever I’m watching a scene, and wondering if our local crims could ever be so vile, or if our cops could ever be so malevolent, then all I have to remember is that of course this stuff can happen here, because it did.
And in that instance too, the state tried to prosecute some of the people they knew were responsible, but it all came undone, in the same way that J’s voiceover at the beginning reminds us that crims always come undone in the end.
J has a lot of bad choices forced upon him, and, though he doesn’t seem desperate, is desperately trying to make the right choices to protect himself and his girlfriend Nicky. The problem is that none of his limited choices have positive outcomes. The family, his grandmother, the police, the lawyers, are all too ruthless to allow him to glide through life as he is. The only cop who isn’t a force for evil, Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce), can’t help that much because, ironically enough, he’s too naïve.
J eventually loses any place within the kingdom, which means he ends up with no choices in the end, but even then, much as we will him on, to survive, to not succumb to the evil around him, we have to know that there’s only really one way out, and it’s as powerful as it is dispiriting.
The performances are unfirmly excellent, but the film is so much more than just the performances. And it’s certainly not just the cinematography, which is very unsettling, with a fair bit of shaky cam, whose only real virtue is that it prevents scenes from looking too stagey. Throughout, director David Michôd and co. make good decisions about what to show and how to show it; what to tell and how to tell it, and in almost every scene they get it right. J’s affectless wander through his own life seems, eventually, to make sense, when we realise that all the horror he is surrounded by has been affecting him from the start, just not on the surface. I can’t say whether it’s a believable portrayal of a teenage boy stuck in such circumstances, because I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be that powerless, confused and inarticulate, but it strikes the right notes, as does his relationship with his girlfriend.
A perfect example of how grounded the flick is that when she asks him if he loves her, he eventually mutters quietly, “Yeah.” She asks why, and he mumbles, “Because you’re nice.”
I know it might seem odd to point to such dialogue and say that’s a spicy meatball, I mean, that that’s right and effective, but it’s representative of the fact that they want J to strike us as being a ‘real’ boy in truly perilous circumstances. And he is, the poor bastard.
The ending, though perfectly appropriate, deliberately gives us what we want without making it at all acceptable. That’s all I’ll say about it. It’s as appropriate as it is affecting, with no-one getting off the hook for their actions and inactions.
Genuinely one of the films of the year, Australian or otherwise.
8 times we are the unfortunate products of our environments out of 10
“Crazy fucking world….” – Animal Kingdom