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

Book Reviews

Sacred Cows: Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet

There’s nothing quite so virtuous in Australian literature as the naifs and curmudgeons who spring from provincial Australia. Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet — a book centred around the tribulations of two struggling Australian families who co-habit a decrepit house in suburban Perth from 1943-1963 — is a cultural extension of Australia’s institutional love affair with the world outside of Australian cities.

The Australian city — a sus inner-suburban ring of decay and debauchery, once occupied by a combative white and ethnic working-class, and now by “craft beer wankers” — is the0 place where big moral pollution hovers, threatening to contaminate the suburbs beyond its borders.

The characters on whom Winton’s novel claustrophobically focuses are the Pickles, who emanate from the bucolic fishing town of Geraldton, and the Lambs, who arrive in Cloud Street after failing to make a fist of farming. And, while they’re brought into a suburb in Perth, Cloudstreet is no urban novel. The city to the extent it functions in the novel does so as a sort of rapacious backdrop, a sink of doom and diminished values. It’s a place Mark Latham watches suspiciously through his culture binoculars.

Cloudstreet is a communitarian project that focuses on the redemptive power of home-spun homilies, truisms and eternal forgiveness. It’s a paean to the truncated world of timeless institutions; the family, the Bible, the ALP, and cuckolding. It’s also a book of preposterous mythological wetness, and its story potential is boxed in by a checklist of thematic touchstones, archetypes and sugary colloquialisms.

And this is still where we find ourselves in Australian literature today, all too often looking past the mirror of contemporary urban society and through some rustic window, searching for some wistful core that is meant to represent the “real” Australian experience. A cursory glance at prescribed novels for VCE or ESL courses is replete with Australia’s geographic obsession for life outside the city, despite the fact Australia is one of the most urbanised nations on earth.

The motivations are partly bureaucratic, political, and commercial, but clearly there’s a cultural obsession at play. American literature explores the American soul through the salesman — the great loser floating down the American river — we continue to explore, incomprehensibly, the Australian psyche through the bushman.

A book demands drama and Winton delivers it — an eating disorder, a dissolute mother, a gambling father, a tragic accident — but Winton’s thematic peccadilloes mean he doesn’t seem to recognise that the cloistered world of these families is the problem. Stop me if I’m wrong but Cloud Street is the wellspring of every character’s misery in this book. It’s a macabre house of hokey horrors.

But my major issue with the novel is its fey language, its bowdlerised representation of Australian culture, its grasping allusions and overwrought metaphors. Water serves as a constant reference point in the book which is fitting because Cloudstreet is dripping with wet language. Characters are constantly chiacking, skylarking, saying “whacko”, “bonzer”, “flamin”, “cripes”, “buggerizin”, “dinkum” and so on. When we first meet Fish, he’s apparently well thought of about town for lighting paper bags with turds inside: the neighbours — presumably with shit on their heels — proclaim “it’s just Fish Lamb and his fun”. Two pages later Fish has his accident and we’re supposed to be tits deep in pathos. Unfortunately, a lot of the emotional developments don’t feel earned but chalked out.

I’ll admit this is a bit of a user-end problem; I’m a booster for contemporary, urbane and urban-based stories, like those of Christos Tsiolkas, but live in a world where kitsch nostalgia casts a long shadow over the Australian cultural landscape. Where’s the healthy morbidity? Stranded in the moral pestholes of the city no doubt.

*originally appearing in Crikey