Criminal gangs have been family affairs since long before the James Brothers saddled up to spread mayhem across the American West. But in today’s pop culture, more and more, it appears that the “family” that slays together stays together.
In the new Australian suspense-drama “Animal Kingdom,” set in the bland burbs of Melbourne, a modern-day Ma Barker manipulates her brood of bank-robber sons with sweet talk and icky, smoldering kisses. In Debra Granik’s American indie drama “Winter’s Bone,” an uncle, his niece and various drug-dealing Ozarks in-laws are sealed in a murderous pact of silence. And in HBO’s upcoming new series “Boardwalk Empire,” set in Prohibition-era New Jersey, a smarmy municipal treasurer played by Steve Buscemi is struggling to control his hot-headed young protege-scion while romancing the widow of the guy he just whacked.
Married to the mob? Listen, fella, that ain’t the half of it. Across a global swath of contemporary films, TV programs and newspaper headlines, if you’re not actually wedded to a thug you might just as easily be the ill-starred offspring, the hapless stepchild, the scheming errand-boy or the unwitting lover of a hoodlum, capo or even Mr. Big himself. When it comes to looking for the presiding authority figure in today’s mass-media landscape, forget “Father Knows Best.” Today it’s “Godfather Knows Best.”
Of course, blood-related criminal cohorts and clans have been around since the ancient Greek House of Atreus and Lord and Lady Macbeth. What’s different, perhaps, is that today’s inbred tribes of hoods and petty desperados are less likely to be depicted as lethally dysfunctional exceptions to the rule of the happy nuclear family. Instead they’ve become emblems, stand-ins for all modern families struggling to survive in a morally bankrupt, economically topsy-turvy world where relying on one’s nearest and dearest, for better or worse, may be the best available option. You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud or a criminal sociologist to grasp why one of Mexico’s most viciously effective new drug cartels calls itself simply “La Familia.”
Sometimes other tribal loyalties based on, say, ethnicity, class or religious belief may reinforce or compete with these sinister family ties, as they do in last year’s Oscar nominee “A Prophet,” whose protagonist must choose between aligning himself with the Corsican or Muslim prisoners.
But ultimately in “A Prophet,” as in many of the best gangster stories, the fundamental unit that binds the bad guys and gals together resembles a family structure more than it does any other type of social unit. In their different ways, “Animal Kingdom” and “Winter’s Bone” — two of the best reviewed movies of the year — depict how families, like criminal enterprises, are held together not only by DNA but by dirty secrets, incestuous psychological bonds, settled and unsettled scores, ancient wounds, barely suppressed rages and resentments, and an insular perspective that keeps outsiders at bay and leaves insiders perpetually chained to their kinfolk — their partners in emotional crime, you might say. And, as with joining the mob, getting into a family tends be a lot easier than getting out.
Imagine, if you dare, being in the shoes of Joshua, the 17-year-old protagonist of “Animal Kingdom,” played by James Frecheville. Suddenly orphaned when his mother overdoses, he is sent to live with his grandmother, Smurf (Jacki Weaver), a ruthless matriarch who guards her larcenous sons with the ferocity of a lioness protecting her cubs. As in the ancient Greek tragedy “Antigone,” the ultimate choice facing Joshua pits loyalty to the family versus loyalty to the rules of the state and the larger society, personified by the police investigator played by Guy Pearce.
Another modern-day version of Antigone’s dilemma figures prominently in “Winter’s Bone.” In this beautifully acted backwoods noir thriller, released a few months ago and a likely award-season contender, a teenage girl, Ree Dolly (played by Jennifer Lawrence), is trying to track down her disappeared father, a crystal-meth maker in league with her uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes). As she’s drawn deeper into her extended family’s sordid dealings, Ree is forced to confront how much she is implicated in the sins of her relatives.
One of the new cultural twists is that mob-family members no longer need to be glamorous figures, sporting double-breasted suits and flapper-moll outfits and toting tommy guns in violin cases. Today, they’re more likely to be as outwardly ordinary as, well, you and me, which makes them all the more chilling. The cunning but none-too-bright brothers in “Animal Kingdom,” with their crude taunts and Oedipal anxieties (the men’s father is conspicuously absent), are a far cry from the cruelly suave, menacingly debonair rogues that Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson played once upon a time. Likewise, the plaid-shirted, denim-clad clan in “Winter’s Bone” are the antithesis of the dapper, slick-haired matinee-idol hoodlums. Yet their Kmart attire is as much a tribal uniform, a brand of kinship, as customized T-shirts at a family reunion.
One of “Boardwalk Empire’s” most ingenious conceits is reminding us that the rise of crime families in America was directly related (pardon the pun) to a breakdown in traditional family values.
A few minutes into the pilot episode, Buscemi’s Thompson gives a speech to a women’s temperance league meeting on the eve of Prohibition in the early 1920s. Historically, women were among Prohibition’s strongest backers because by the early 1900s they’d grown weary of getting beaten up by their drunken, money-squandering husbands. Domestic (i.e. family) violence begat Prohibition, which begat booze- and, later, drug-smuggling criminal families.
If the cutthroat relatives and substitute relations of “Boardwalk Empire,” “Animal Kingdom,” “Winter’s Bone” and the rest present a monstrous picture of family affairs, it’s because even some picture-postcard families have monsters lurking under the bed.