Once in a while a film comes along that not only surpasses the hype, but also lays down the gauntlet as the film to beat for that year.
Animal Kingdom is just that film. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and boasting a cast of Australia’s best veteran and new talent, Animal Kingdom is a devastatingly good watch that deals with the moral implications of a family of criminals torn apart by murder and betrayal.
Yet to purely call Animal Kingdom another Australian crime film is both misleading and, dare I say it, disrespectful. It is not some generic yarn about cheeky crims doing bad things to a rock soundtrack and a succession of quick cuts. There is a depth and subtlety to this film which is both startling and invigorating, providing a boost to a much mangled genre and the local film industry.
“Animal Kingdom is about trying to navigate a moral terrain in a morally corrupt world,” said writer/director David Michod. “Such that very often doing things that feel genuinely and reasonably right, can to the rest of us seem incredibly wrong if the moral world you are living in is kind of toxic.”
ONCE UPON A TIME IN MELBOUNRE
“I will be very happy when Animal Kingdom releases, so I can finally for once think about something else”, laughs writer/director David Michod, clearly excited about the upcoming national release of his feature film debut, yet equally worn out in bringing his passion project to the big screen.
After all, it has been nearly a decade since Michod first came up with the idea of a Melbourne based crime drama that dealt with family, survival, and morals in an ethically corrupt world.
During that time, Michod had his finger in a lot of pies. He was editor of Australian film industry bible Inside Film between the years of 2003-2006, and made a reputation as an accomplished filmmaker of short films, with his Crossbow garnering much acclaim and winning many awards.
In Michod’s words, he “managed to squeeze in a lot of other stuff over the course of those 10 years, written a lot of things, worked on a bunch of other things, and gotten into a whole lot of trouble.”
Yet it was a return home to Sydney which saw Michod ready to focus his attentions on what is sure to be his Mean Streets.
“I actually wrote the script entirely in Sydney, but it was immediately after I moved back after living in Melbourne for 10 years.”
Ah, Melbourne. Picturesque city of Victorian architecture and lavish gardens; home of Australian Rules Football; and unofficial crime capital of Australia, which saw many a gangster become a national celebrity only to die in a cascade of gunfire.
Many an Australian crime film has drawn inspiration from its notoriety. Chopper saw Eric Bana rip the city apart and go on to become an international star. TV series Underbelly effectively exploited its last batch of criminal drama to high controversy and even higher ratings.
“I’m not quite sure how the environment in Melbourne influenced the writing, but there is definitely this thing that is quite unusual about crime in Melbourne,” said Michod. “Unlike so many other cities in the world where there is intense criminal activity, very often that criminal activity is confined to certain ethnic enclaves, or bad neighbourhoods, or ghettos of some kind. But in Melbourne it feels like it’s everywhere...for that reason people feel a closer connection to the underworld in Melbourne, than in other places...a closer connection that is often a little bit unsettling but also a bit titillating as well.”
Fellow Melbournian Ben Mendelsohn, who plays the sociopathic Pope, agrees: “What I can tell you about Melbourne crime is that it’s always been there. There’s always been a particularly kind of committed criminal thing going on in Melbourne. But you don’t really notice it unless you’re really in it. But obviously there is a lot of brutality that has gone down, and I think there was an exchange for a time between the police and certain criminals, which was a horrendous and interesting time.”
|“I think people will have a very strong moral reaction to this stuff... but the important thing here is to realise that a film is actually not an event that actually takes place in the concrete world." - Ben Mendelsohn
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Ben Mendelsohn walks into the room, greets me with a warm handshake, and asks if I like a something to drink, pointing to a vast array of beverages laid out for any and all to consume.
“So, tell me about your website? Because I am an old bugger, and don’t really understand how it all works”. I answer his query politely, yet am taken back by the exchange. After all, it was only a few weeks back that Mendelsohn had me quaking as the paranoid and dangerous Pope, the eldest son in a family of crooks imploding at the seams.
The rest of the family is filled out by a who’s who of Australian talent. Veteran actress Jacki Weaver plays unassuming patriarch Smurf; character actor Sullivan Stapleton is speed freak Craig Cody, and fresh off his success overseas is Luke Ford as Darren.
Mendelsohn was the first to receive Michod’s script, and although it was still raw, he could see the potential for a great film.
“It was a little unwieldy, actually... but you could feel it in there, that great stuff,” said Mendelsohn. “The script changed over time. But it was obvious this was someone who was able to approach this intense material, with a very strong idea for what might be going on with the people involved in it. And that’s an interesting thing, to kind of explore what’s going in inside the people that are doing these things.”
Weaver, too, could see that Michod was on to something special: “I read the script 5 years ago. He sent it to me and I just thought it was an A grade script right from the off. I thought it had complex characters, not two dimensional at all. Really good, non clichéd dialogue and a great storyline. I think David’s a born storyteller.”
Oddly enough, for all of the tough talk and violence which these characters perpetrate, it is the diminutive Weaver who steals the show as the mother with a sweet as pie exterior, yet whose black soul is exposed as the film becomes more tense and the character that much more desperate.
A passionate kiss on the lips of momma’s boy Craig speaks volumes as to the relationship this mother has with her children.
Said Weaver: “I don’t think there was incest going on. But I do think it was highly inappropriate behaviour, and it was a kind of measure of the power she had over the boys, and it left you with an unpleasant feeling. It certainly does me, and I’ve seen the movie four times.”
Sharing the kiss with Weaver was Sullivan Stapleton, who clearly enjoyed how the scene played out: “I enjoyed it...I got to pash Jacki Weaver! It’s a great moment when we were watching the film.”
Michod agrees: “It’s funny....Jackie and I were talking about that yesterday. It actually was in the script, all that kissing on the lips stuff...when Jackie and I started rehearsing it, I didn’t really anticipate that it would be a thing that people would be talking about. I found that even in Sundance, everyone wanted to talk about the kiss on the lips. For me it was a kind of particular character oddity, and it was suggestive of her inappropriately intimate relationship with her kids, and how that is almost what holds the family together. But it’s been kind of interesting how potent it is in the movie.”
Into this toxic world comes young J, an innocent with nowhere to go, unaware of the hell he is about to endure.
An open casting call saw 500 young actor’s audition for the role, but it would be 17 year old James Frecheville who won the part.
“It was the first script I read...I thought it was great, and I wanted (the part) because it was a job for a 17 yr old that hadn’t done anything. TV shows have a lot of appeal to young actors, but to get a film with a bunch of really good names attached to it, your thoughts are irrelevant whether (the script) is good or not.”
|"I think probably everybody’s capable of doing dreadful things, but most of us are lucky enough to know how to draw the line. I know I could kill people sometimes." - Jacki Weaver
SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST
What stands Animal Kingdom apart from other crime movies is its ability to tap into the dog eats dog nature of crime culture.
Complicating matters is the appearance of Detective Nathan Lackie (Guy Pearce), the one good cop in a corrupt system, who appeals to J to do the right thing and turn on his family.
“His characters dilemma is a whole different thing,” says Mendohlsen. “He’s an outsider / insider. So he really is stuck in no man’s land, and then he really does have to pick, and that’s essentially the heart of the film. So the moral dilemma exists in him in a way that it does for no other character, and it finds a way in expressing itself.”
But just where does morality play in a world where survival of the fittest is determined by who shoots first?
“It’s a very interesting question,” continues Mendelsohn. “I think people will have a very strong moral reaction to this stuff... but the important thing here is to realise that a film is actually not an event that actually takes place in the concrete world. It’s purely representational, it’s purely storytelling...that is an important thing to remember, and often forgotten about. And that is one of the reasons why this film should not be viewed by boys under the age of 18, as a basic rule.... because of the intensity, and the moral ambiguity of the violence. And I’m not talking about that in terms of a spectacular thing. I’m talking about the feeling that goes through that, and the things you see happening to those people.”
Ford gives his own interpretation as to the moral implication in the film: “I think the morality in this is more in the destruction of the family...it is dog versus dog and survival of the fittest. But you see the destruction of this family evolve and fall to pieces... I think it’s also the way these boys are brought up. They follow their rules. They don’t follow society’s rules, and there are families out there that do that.”
It is a theme which Weaver continues with: “I think it’s about the banality of evil. These people are sociopaths and I don’t think they have got morals. There is that thing about honour amongst thieves, where they have a certain set of ethical standards amongst themselves. But even I think...their moral compass has gone haywire. It’s not my place to make judgements, but I think probably everybody’s capable of doing dreadful things, but most of us are lucky enough to know how to draw the line. I know I could kill people sometimes (laughs). But I wouldn’t.”
“If you watch the film, you will see that most acts of violence come out of necessity, in the way that there’s no other option,” says Frecheville. “Whether it’s a good choice or bad choice in what they decide to do, it just makes sense; it’s survival of the fittest. So I didn’t really question the morals, because it’s other people in that circumstance, and you are only good at what you know.”
|“Animal Kingdom is about trying to navigate a moral terrain in a morally corrupt world...such that very often doing things that feel genuinely and reasonably right, can to the rest of us seem incredibly wrong if the moral world you are living in is kind of toxic.” - David Michod
NEW CRIME WAVE
That Animal Kingdom feels like a breath of fresh air in a genre running low of fumes all comes down to Michod’s refusal to play by the tired formula found in many a modern crime film.
“Definitely my conversations with (cinematographer) Adam Arkapaw were very much along the lines of not feeling like we needed to make the scenes more interesting by doing something silly with the camera,” said Michod. “Having said that, there were very clear moments where I wanted to take it into a slightly more poetic, or heightened territory. Adam and I were saying we had to have faith in the script...if it’s not working on the page, in the scene, as performed by these actors, then no amount of camera trickery is going to make it work”
“It was obvious that David wasn’t going for that kind of territory,” said Mendelsohn. “If you’re going to do something like this, you better have your stuff right. Otherwise you’re not going to be bringing what’s needed in order to do that. You need to have the ability to have feelings actually hit the plate, you know what I mean? I saw his short film Crossbow, which manages to do something which is really difficult in a short film, which is give you a significant emotional end. It was obvious from watching that, that the guy could handle the medium. The degree to which he’s handled the medium? That’s a big surprise. I don’t think there is anyone who worked on this film that isn’t surprised and overjoyed at how well it turned out.”
Unlike other crime movies, it is not the violence itself which makes the film, but the family dynamic which fuels its dark soul.
“It’s the honesty of the story,” says Stapleton. “It’s easy to make films that tell stories about crimes and what happened, but the story here is about a very dysfunctional family...things happened in this film, crimes happen, but it’s about this family.
“When you think about really good crime films” continues Mendelsohn, “there is very little glamorization of crime per say. What you’re dealing with is this sort of very family, kind of orientated thing...now this film is not The Godfather. It’s a very different aims from that. But I’m simply trying to draw the parallel that there are brilliant crime films, which don’t bang on and on about criminal stuff. But I think what’s going on at the moment is that incredibly popular, you know, sort of television stuff that’s going on. And that kind of provides a little illumination, but that also provides a little bit of confusion. But I think this film is much more intense, and a very different kind of animal."
Animal Kingdom will be released on the 3rd of June through Madman Entertainment.