Film Reviews

Sacred Cows: Animal Kingdom

If triangles had a God, they would give him three sides.

— Charles de Montesquieu

As the French philosopher Charles de Montesquieu noted, it’s not easy to conceive of our world in images that aren’t already familiar to us. David Michôd’s 2010 film, Animal Kingdom, is a film inspired by cultural sources that we’re conversant with, but unfortunately these influences — notably a hackneyed “study” of Australian criminals and working-class life — and some weak plotting present significant issues in the film.

Like Rowan Woods’ The Boys, which was based upon the Anita Cobby murder, Animal Kingdom is inspired by real-life events — the Melbourne crime family the Pettingills and the Walsh Street police shooting. But despite the Byzantine and potentially thrilling elements of that case, Animal Kingdom is relatively uncluttered by plot complications, or much in the way of a story engine. Michôd chose instead to make this film a sort of study of a crime family, with particular focus on the character of the film’s antagonist and alpha male eldest brother “Pope” Cody (Ben Mendelsohn).

Michôd is not only the director and scriptwriter of Animal Kingdom, but comes from an acting background. And it shows here. Animal Kingdom is a film that’s somewhat sparse in dialogue and relies to a large degree on atmospherics. The palette is dark and it feels at times that the actors are working overly hard on performance; on pulling off a convincing characterisation of a working-class crim.

The brutalist Australian crime tableau has some very strong contenders for authenticity and engagement, including the fine television miniseries Blue Murder; the stylised but mesmerising Chopper, which managed to convey character and sociopathy alongside a well-structured plot; and perhaps the exemplar of the menacing, realist Australian crime film experience, David Williamson’s The Removalists, which bears the audience into disturbingly close proximity with latent violence against the backdrop of a silent ticking menace.

It’s hard to understand where Animal Kingdom sits in terms of genre because it fails the test of plot-driven tautness required of a crime drama, nor does it provide any particularly illuminating insights into the characters, just some surface effects that signal malfunction.

In terms of originality, it follows many of the conventions of The Boys — a sociopathic older brother, chastened siblings, an enabling mother, absent father, the home as a house of horrors, status and sexual anxiety being at the heart of male violence. Maybe these are just real-life factors surrounding a crime family. But what might have made this film more disqueiting would have been some levity; moments when we might uncomfortably find ourselves identifying with ogres, or discovering that ogres aren’t always so.

But the biggest issue for this film is that the protagonist is docile, a blank space. The school-aged Josh (James Frecheville) or “J” ends up moving into the Cody home with his grandmother and violent uncles after his mother dies of a heroin overdose at the start of the film. His reaction to his mother’s death is cavalier, but not in a spooky or affecting way. Through the movie he fails to drive the story forward in plot or emotion. His coup de grace comes at the film’s conclusion but for 99% of the film he’s a pure spectator, an inert block. Too much is dissipated waiting for the one-time pay-off.

The character at the centre of the film is clearly Pope, but he doesn’t arrive until 17 minutes in. Up to that point it appears that Pope’s friend and accomplice Baz (Joel Edgerton) is the protagonist, but he’s killed minutes later with no sense of comradery having been established. What’s at stake in this film is hard to fathom.

Animal Kingdom is a realist crime drama but with no heart, not even a dark one.

*originally published in Crikey on 29 June, 2018

Film Reviews

Sacred Cows: Bliss – a controversial trailblazer for Australian strangeness

Ray Lawrence’s Bliss certainly caused a stir at its release, but did it ever get the credit it deserves in the canon of Australian film?

A big trap for ambitious filmmakers is to fall in love with a literary novel. Problems of drift and focus can occur when trying to translate the interior reflections of literary fiction into screen language. The 1985 Australian film Bliss certainly was an ambitious project for this reason, owing to the somewhat high-toned literary structure of Peter Carey’s 1981 Miles Franklin Award-winning novel on which the film was based.

For first-time director, Ray Lawrence — who had met Peter Carey in the world of advertising –perhaps those doubts never entered into calculations, and surprisingly, it’s this big risk that makes Bliss notable in the history of Australian film.

Bliss follows the story of advertising executive and raconteur, Harry Joy, who dies of a heart attack one afternoon during a family lunch. After being brought back to life, Harry’s life appears a sort of purgatory. He takes stock of his family’s depravities, has a brief sojourn to a psych hospital, Harry becomes smitten with a bee-crazy hippy named Honey Barbara who makes occasional visits to the city as a sex worker to help sustain her communal life in the rainforest. Harry’s journey involves the repudiation of the base materiality of his world and is a chalk-out to some degree of Carey’s own occupations and proclivities in the late 1970s.

Bliss certainly made an impact on the Australian and international film community when it landed. When it showed at Cannes, 400 of the 2000 strong audience walked out of the screening, eliciting a forthright headline from The Daily Telegraph: “Caning at Cannes: Bliss Bombs”. It was the second largest walk-out behind Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura in 1960.

Owing to its risqué content — notably an allusion to an incestuous sex-for-cocaine exchange between Davey and sister Lucy — the $3.3 million Blisscould not find an Australian distributor, and then had to fight the R-rating it was given by the censor. It never recouped its investment at the box office, collecting just under $2 million.

The critical response, however, was more fulsome. Film critic David Thomson invited Lawrence to screen Bliss at the New York Film Festival, and in Australia the film slowly built momentum, eventually picking up AFI awards for best picture, director and screenplay in 1985. Despite this, it’s never been widely revered by Australian audiences.

But what of the film itself? Bliss begins with a literary monologue on “Vision Splendid” which acts as a prologue to the film. The voiceover is accompanied by a surreal, quasi-apocalyptic visage of a robed woman holding a gold crucifix on a boat, floating across a flooded suburban street. We then cut to Harry who is delivering the monologue as he sits amongst his friends and family at the lunch table, before stepping outside to have a smoke and a heart attack.

To this point, it’s all very straightforward in film terms. We understand the world of the protagonist and have a clear inciting incident. Thereafter the film struggles to create any tautness, owing perhaps to its two-act structure. Like a biopic, at times it tends to move from situation to situation without any great sustaining drive. The character of Honey Barbara, Harry’s commune-living love interest who enters halfway through the film, I must say I found grating and whatever appeal she held in the novel translated terribly on screen.

But this is a film of moments and tone, theme and style; an arthouse film with an Antipodean twist. There are dream-like moments in the film; although they’re not at full-blown Fellini levels, which was presumably too far to reach even for an ambitious young director. But in Australian style, they are reined in. There are also surreal moments that are Lynchian, such as when the lover of Harry’s wife Bettina bursts into a fireball on the sofa.

Its value as a film lies in its status as a trailblazer. It showcased new possibilities in the Australian filmmaking industry, as a corrective to our hitherto obsession with national identity branding, social realism or recreationist drama. Along with films like Monkey Grip it opened up vistas quite urbane and distinct from the usual shibboleths of Australian film, as evidenced in films like Breaker MorantThe Man from Snowy RiverGallipoli, or Phar Lap.

And beyond questions of theme, Lawrence brought subtle stylistic elements to the Australian film palette. One shot sequences, master shots, long takes, slow dollys, natural lighting and almost non-existent dubbing gave the film a different gloss and a less harried aesthetic. The stylistic conventions Lawrence used here helped render a much more affecting form of naturalism too; his 2001 film Lantana being a prime example.

Sure, Lantana is far superior to Bliss as a film, but Bliss deserves a special place in Australian film history for its bold foray into the murky and often unforgiving terrain of the literary film adaptation.

* originally appeared in Crikey on 18 May, 2018