I have just reviewed the harrowing ‘Snowtown’ (released in the US as ‘The Snowtown Murders’) here so I am going to review two more Australian films that deal with isolation, crime and the claustrophobia of circumstance; Animal Kingdom and Lantana.
Animal Kingdom is about a rather ordinary and uninteresting suburban crime family – the Cody’s – who consist of four brothers and their mother – Smurf (Jacki Weaver). The family is ‘run’ by the second-to-oldest son Baz (Joel Edgerton) who, by all accounts is reasonably level-headed and interested in getting the family out of the armed holdup game and into more legitimate and safer enterprises. But when Baz is shot and killed by the local Armed Robbery Squad, eldest brother ‘Pope’ steps up to the mantle and he is a far less stable character.
Shown through the eyes of teenagee ‘J’ who is left with no choice but to move in with grandmother Smurf and his uncles after his mother overdoses on heroin, the underlying violence and sociopathy of Pope and Smurf in particular are inevitably revealed to J who finds himself potentially at the brunt of the family’s wrath.
Like Snowtown, Animal Kingdom uses a teenage boy as a protagonist and like Snowtown, the boy is show to be emotionally repressed due to upbringing and circumstances. Both films raise questions about Australian working-class masculinity and the circumstances that rob young men of their potential agency in the face of extreme circumstances. And while neither film offers any alternative view of the contemporary Australian male (if there is such a beast), they both offer an unflinching eye on the cost of machismo and pathology that is potentially under the surface of such masculinity.
Jacki Weaver’s matriarch ‘Smurf’ also makes a chilling study on how this type of masculinity is both created and controlled – Smurf is a sociopath who depends upon ‘her boys’ to live and rewards them with disturbing affection when they deliver. The slow realisation of the true monster that is Smurf is one of the best aspects of this film – her actions and manipulations are shocking to see and earned Weaver an Oscar nomination. Ben Menolsohn as the charismatic but sociopathic Pope also keeps the potential for menace alive, especially when he turns his eye on J and his young girlfriend.
As a debut for writer/director David Michôd, the film is exceptional – yes, it has its detractors with many suggesting the accolades are the result of a home-grown industry too invested in self-congratulation. And yes, it subscribes to a particular suburban milieu in current Australian filmmaking. But I have no problem with this – far from it. Australia has long produced gritty crime dramas (Matlock Police springs to mind) and given our cultural legacy, this is relevant material to interrogate. Animal Kingdom’s dark and dense psychological study on these themes is operatic in its execution and immensely watchable.