'Animal Kingdom'

This Is Not Your PBS Nature Special

by Terrence Butcher

13 March 2011

The Codys are nothing more than a contemporary embodiment of Australia's jailhouse origins.
cover art

Animal Kingdom

Director: David Michod
Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver, Sullivan Stapleton, James Frecheville

US DVD: 18 Jan 2011

If anyone imagines that kid-at-heart action wunderkind Quentin Tarantino possesses a one-track mind, that he only digs blustery Cinemacho epics, that person should know that QT’s favorite flick of 2010 is Toy Story 3(!), followed by Aaron Sorkin’s talky, violence-free The Social Network. Numero tres on the action auteur’s list is a little-seen Down Under thriller called Animal Kingdom.

No, it’s not a PBS nature special, but rather a Melbourne-set gangster shoot-em-up, and before you vehemently proclaim that Tarantino has a permanent hard-on for sociopathic crime tales, know that Animal Kingdom is an austere, relatively somber piece, devoid of postmodern references and flashy dialogue. Director David Michod claimed, in a post-screening Q & A at last summer’s Los Angeles Film Festival, that he had no desire to do a loud, self-consciously hip rock ‘n’ roll film, so don’t expect the movie to show up on VH1’s “Rock ‘n Roll Picture Show” in 2030.

Regardless of Quentin’s endorsement, Animal Kingdom is a dreamy, but potent look at a clueless teenager’s initiation into a precarious lifestyle, hardly unfamiliar cinematic territory. On DVD, the film arrives with a haughty pedigree, as it took countless awards, and wherever it failed to take the crown, it drew nominations.

Josh Cody, all of 17 and affectionately as “J”, is drawn into his estranged grandmother Janine’s web after his mother departs her mortal coil following a heroin overdose. Josh is played by newcomer James Frecheville, a ten-year veteran of children’s theater, and his sultry, chiseled face, pouty lips, and hooded eyebrows, not to mention the fashionable slight sag to his character’s pants, probably signify yet another emerging Aussie hunk, but let’s hope the young chappie doesn’t devote all his time to photo shoots in Vanity Fair, because his subtly haunting performance here is exemplary for a film newbie.

Grandma Janine’s (Jacki Weaver) web is home to several spiders, namely the Cody Boys, Josh’s ne’er-do-well uncles, along with their partner-in-crime Barry “Baz” Brown(Joel Edgerton). The quintet comprises an infamous Melbourne claque of bank robbers and drug dealers, and Josh’s now-deceased mum wisely steered clear of this bunch, fearful that “J” would be sucked in.

Early on, Josh sees Uncle Craig (a hair-trigger, tattooed Sullivan Stapleton) snorting coke, like Tony Montana violating the golden rule: never get high on your own supply; perhaps the scene foreshadows their approaching downfall. Josh experiences his own trial by fire, when the same dear Uncle places a pistol in his nephew’s hand, exhorting him to threaten two thugs during a mine’s-bigger-than-yours road rage incident. Josh does as he’s told, but his face remains emotionless while brandishing the gun, and we don’t get the sense that he’s enjoying himself. In another scene, Josh is visibly perturbed by a childish yet serious wrestling match between Craig and Baz, as if thinking, “Who are these nutters?”

Baz, later conversing with the eldest and most feared Cody, known as “Pope” (a chilling Ben Mendelsohn), attempts to wean them away from the hard-knock life with promises of stock-market riches, but Pope, for the first and last time seeming a pathetic boy, declares complete ignorance of financial machinations, and even confesses to being computer-illiterate. I’m reminded of P.J. Hogan’s earlier grindhouse cheapie Vicious, and the teenage protagonist’s family’s easy, ‘legitimate’ affluence, contrasted with the coarse, desperate savagery of the hooligans that kidnap him. In that film, white-suited, beach-fronted wealth is a blanketing force in Australian society, wiping away its grubby convict heritage, and market-savvy business leaders are the new ‘killers’ of that former penal colony. Baz’ plea to Pope for the group to join the ranks of ‘modern’ Australians – “Our game…it’s over mate” - falls on deaf ears, as his partner cannot fathom a different way of life.

Pope’s sinister undertones don’t stop there. In one scene, he watches Josh’s napping girlfriend with unspoken intent, and you sense he wants to nail her. Carrying her to a nearby bed, he lays the girl down gently, complimenting her nubile shapeliness, as Josh watches warily from the doorway. More amusingly, he cross-questions another sibling, Josh’s Uncle Darren(a Scandinavian-looking Luke Ford), about his sexuality. “If you’re gay, mate, just be honest with me”. You’d expect Pope to have little use for homosexuals, especially as criminal cohorts, but oddly enough, he seems genuinely concerned and solicitous. Could Pope be a budding Dr. Phil, perhaps? We don’t know if Darren’s ‘in the life’, but strapping Aryan hunk that he is, he certainly wouldn’t long for companions.

Much to the gang’s dismay, renegade police detectives are hot on their trail, and the trap closes tighter in the second act. Guy Pearce, so proficient at playing the workaday Everyman, and an essential glue in the structure of New Oz Cinema, plays Detective Nathan Leckie, and he’s a determined hunter. He tells young Josh: “In the animal kingdom, everything knows its place. There’s an order to things”. There are “pissy little insects”, a humorous and apt reference to the Codys. Once again, we’re reminded that the Codys are nothing more than a contemporary embodiment of Australia’s jailhouse origins, and Leckie’s job is to keep these embarrassing artifacts buried, even if he hails from a similar working-class British-derived background.

It’s no secret that Jacki Weaver was granted a Best Supporting Actress nomination from the often dreary Academy of Motion Pictures, and while that nod may have overstated her work just a tad, she is sharp as an angel-faced Machiavellian schemer, the erstwhile Ma Barker of the Cody clan. Her expressive, owlish eyes seem to conceal her thoughts, and she clearly has the keen, street-smart intelligence that people mistakenly attribute to that majestic bird. Grandma Janine will let nothing drag her down, and sums up her survival instinct succinctly… “We do what we must.”

Animal Kingdom was shot – for a very modest $5 million Aussie dollars—in and around Melbourne, Australia’s second-largest city, and perhaps its most diverse. The Codys are loosely based upon the Pettingill family, who were involved in the Walsh Street police shootings of 1988. There are unmistakable narrative echoes of James Foley’s 1985 American drama At Close Range, with Christopher Walken as a backwoods Pennsylvania godfather, and Sean Penn as his sensitive hoodlum son, who quickly realizes he’s in way over his head. That film, also was adapted from a real-life case, namely that of the ruthless Johnson gang, active in the ‘70s.

Extras included in this DVD package are an inexplicably brief making-of featurette, and a much longer post-screening Q & A session with Michod and several principals from the film, including Weaver, whose part was written especially for her, and Frecheville, whose angular features and strapping physique suggest a man, not the fresh-faced boy he portrays. In fact, the teen’s imposing build almost cost him the role, as Michod and producer Liz Watts had in mind someone of slighter and more vulnerable-looking frame.

The Q & A is moderated by veteran Newsweek critic David Ansen, who I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing a decade ago, while researching a paper about the New Hollywood revolution of the eary-‘70s. The discussion took place at last summer’s Los Angeles Film Festival, where, coincidentally, I was supposed to see the film, but traffic and lateness conspired to nix my plans. Michod makes it clear that he wanted to shoot “a big, bad Melbourne crime story”, and mentions that ‘Mel’ has a rich criminal history, which could be an intriguing documentary project for someone…Baz Luhrmann, what dazzling visual pyrotechnics could you bring to the non-fiction format?

Animal Kingdom doesn’t re-invent the crime drama, and some of its accolades have been hyperbolic, but it’s a sharply-observed work which skillfully weaves seat-of-the-pants verite with tragic-operatic dimensions, and in this genre, it’s refreshing to see a female protagonist holding the reins. Weaver’s Janine Cody takes it much further than Billie Whitelaw’s Violet Kray ever dreamed, as Mrs. K was at best an enabler to her twins’ nefarious doings. Janine’s choices throughout will shock and surprise, and her motivations in the climactic scene will induce head-scratching, but you’ll never doubt that this mother is in control. QANTAS, anyone?

Animal Kingdom


Extras rating:

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