The poster for Animal Kingdom may simply declare the film as ‘A Crime Story.’ In fact it's a searing portrait of family loyalties, love and dysfunction, brutally tethered to the nihilism that comes with so virulently living outside the law. With an impressive ensemble including Guy Pierce, Jackie Weaver and Joel Edgerton, the film also makes the most of its titular metaphor; one that is too meaty not to wonder if it can apply to writer-director David Michôd’s debut feature production, particularly when it stars a lion of an actor in Ben Mendelsohn. The film’s ambition, precision as well as the win at Sundance clearly marks Michôd as the new player in town. And Meldelsohn, for one, has noticed.
“Fuck, I mean can you imagine coming out of the blocks any stronger?” he declares, “David’s got a beautiful brain; he’s very connected in, he’s got a lot going on concerning human dynamics. He’s the kind of person who’s got a feel for uptown and downtown, [and] he’s a man that shown a significant mastery of the medium. I think there’s plenty for people that like films to be a bit hopeful and excited about with David.”
For Michôd, Animal Kingdom has been a ten-year labour of love, and one that developed from the merits of his short film work. “You spend all those years writing something of that size, but not actually being able to imagine ever being in a position where you can make the thing,” the filmmaker admits. “And what felt at the time like a relatively sudden shift in the whole landscape, where it didn’t feel just makeable, it felt inevitable.”
Mendelsohn meanwhile admits, “I was essentially raised on set, I’m probably more comfortable on a set at work than anywhere really.” And together they brought to life in Pope Cody what will surely come to be one of Australian cinema’s most malevolent and coolly nightmarish antagonists.
“I had an idea of a particular kind of damage," Michôd explains, "a particular kind of man who had never been fully functional, but had managed to survive within a certain kind of network of people and within a certain kind of social framework. When that framework starts to unravel, as it does for him in the movie – we’re in a particular era where his main field of criminal expertise is becoming ever increasingly unviable – such that when that framework in which he has just managed to be functional starts to unravel, so does he. There’s a particular kind of damaged child in there that, when lost and confused, lashes out.”
Mendelsohn came to Pope during a frenetic period of working back-to-back (and overlapping) films, Knowing, Beautiful Kate and Prime Mover, as well as TV shows Tangle and Who Do You Think You Are. “It ended up being kind of perfect, because I think working that hard is actually really good for me,” he says. “It’s kind of full on, but I actually do very well peddle to the metal. And I just didn’t care anymore; I didn’t care how full on it got inside. I have no idea how the people in the world of the events are – never seen ‘em, never heard ‘em, can’t feel ‘em. So I took one or two things from people that I’d run into, impressions that you get. The most important of which is that people who are actually dangerous don’t need to pretend they’re dangerous.”
However Meldelsohn also suggests, “It wasn’t a fun film to make. They don’t have to be. I had a lot of fun while I was there, but it was a difficult shoot at times.” This, it seems was in part the byproduct of Michôd’s incisive psychological characterisation.
“You’re dealing with something that is particularly up close and well more than personal, it’s hyper personal, and when you’re doing that you need your full range of dysfunctional kind of feeling set to be able to be on display and accessed. So in order to do that you just want to do it. And that’s just kind of an unspoken agreement or a pact or the film taking over, or all those sort of things, that ‘we’re doing this.’”
“But it really got ugly for a while. There were fights on this set, there were punch-ups. We were able to do stuff with each other and still come back from there [because] we all kind of adore each other. We’re not like the Cody’s but we got a family rapport going.”
For Michôd, however, the tension took its toll, admitting “I starting smoking almost two packs a day.”
But then again with rave reviews across the board, perhaps the ends justified the means. In this nigh saturated market of crime-time TV, Animal Kingdom comes as a refreshingly weighty and beautifully constructed piece of cinema.
“I didn’t want to make a film that was a glorification of criminal endeavours. I didn’t want to make a film in which these characters were really cool. I have a deep, strange, if not love... empathy for these characters, but I didn’t want to make a kind of cool, rock n’ roll crime film, I wanted to make something more substantial than that.”
While Michôd remains quietly anxious for his film to strike a chord with Australian audiences, Meldelsohn is droll.
“I think this film is such a palpable experience that it’s going to be fine,” he says. “And if we don’t catch you buggers here in Australia, don’t worry, we’ll catching a lot of the rest of the world anyway.”
David Michôd - Image
Published by Street Press Australia
Click here to read my review of Animal Kingdom