Animal Kingdom

The depiction of the criminal underworld has been underrepresented in Australian cinema compared to its US, French, Japanese and even its British counterparts. This may have its merits considering the vast input of copycat wannabes of Tarintino which has proliferated our screens. Therefore when Australia makes a gangster film, it would have to be a good one. Thankfully with the imminent release of Animal Kingdom, Australia has added a classic to the long established crime genre.

Based loosely on the true story of the Pettingill family and the Walsh street police shootings, the film enters the trajectory through the naive young eyes of the estranged relative J, (Josh, newcomer James Frechville, holding his own against a cast of veterans).  After the death of his mother from a heroin overdose he is forced to live with the notorious criminal fraternity of his grandmother and his uncles.

J’s forced migration to his estranged relatives, gives a powerful insight to the dysfunction of the Cody family, headed by the sunny but sinister matriarch Grandma Smurf (Jackie Weaver). Other members of his family include his uncle Andrew ‘Pope’ Cody, in hiding from renegade police officers who intend to kill. Baz (Joel Eagleton) the calm level headed member of the crew, opting out to pursue more legitimate sources of income. Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) the wild, hot head of the family with a penchant for getting high on his own supply and finally the youngest brother Darren who seems out of place in this den of savage criminals.

When conflict ensues between the Codys and the police, a vicious tit for tat implicates J, which exposes him to the paranoia of his family. Within the chaos of corrupt cops, sleazy lawyers and the witness protection, his only ally seems to be Guy Pearce’s senior cop Nathan Leckie.

The great ensemble cast complement each other well with particular mention going to Ben Mendelsohn as Andrew ‘Pope’ Cody (a part written especially for him); an increasingly creepy, unstable and menacing portrayal and who is derivative of much of the film’s suspense. Jackie Weaver deserves the accolades for her depiction of a woman who portrays brightness and warmth on the outside but peeled away leaves the essence of evil. And James Frecheville excels in his first screen role

David Michôd’s debut as a director exudes authenticity and naturalism in this film, while the use of natural light from his D.O.P. (Adam Arkapaw) is effective in displaying the  Melbourne landscape  with affection (in the same way that Michael Mann; Michôd’s inspiration, does for the city of Los Angeles in his films).

Beyond its cops and robbers theme, Animal Kingdom examines the loss of innocence of a boy approaching adulthood. Michôd’s decision not to overplay the violence results in the tension being played out slowly, as the threat of cruelty lingers around for the viewer. Essentially Animal Kingdom is a perfectly realised and fascinatingly told crime story and proves that Michôd is someone to look out for.


grade A*

Australia’s Criminals on screen

One of the very first full length feature films ever, was The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) directed by Charles Tait. Based upon the real life exploits of famous Australian bandit Ned Kelly and his gang, Kelly’s daring and notoriety was perfect fodder for the thrills of the new found medium. Made only 26 years after Kelly was executed, it played a big part in adding to the folklore.

2000’s Chopper was a brilliant debut from Andrew Dominik, who went on to direct the equally brilliant The Assassination of Jesse James. The film told the story of Mark Brendon “Chopper” Read, a career criminal who practised in kidnap, torture, extortion and drug dealing amongst many other things. The infamous story of Read cutting off both ears in order to leave Pentridge H division prison depicted the disturbing and humorous psyche of the Australian madman. Though autobiographical the film plays loosely on the truth of Read’s notoriety, as it is wary of the exaggerated source material provided by Read. Thus the film often contradicts Read’s version of events in a Rashomon-style of method, which is perfectly shown in the killing of the criminal known as Sammy the Turk (based on real-life criminal Siam Ozerkam).

Australia’s criminal history was also represented on the small screen with the 13 part Underbelly mini-series. Based on the book Leadbelly: Inside Australia’s Underworld by crime journalists John Silvester and Andrew Rule. It told the real life events of gangland war between 1995 and 2004, involving Melbourne’s criminal underworld of the Carlton Crew, the Moran family and Carl Williams. Increasingly popular, Underbelly was the equivalent to HBO’s The Wire and the Sopranos, which sprawled several spin offs, including Underbelly: A Tale of Two Cities and Underbelly: The Golden Mile.

The imminent release of the superb Animal Kingdom is a fictionalised account of the Pettingill family, headed by the Ma Barker type figure of Kath Pettingill. More like the Simpsons than the Godfather in terms of the dysfunction of low class family life, it does not however deter from the threat and paranoia of a life of crime. Though fictional, the film loosely includes real life episodes from the lives Penttingril’s.

In October 1988 Graeme Jensen was shot and killed by the Victoria Armed Police Robbery Squad in the car park of a supermarket. A few weeks later constable Steven Tynan, 22 and Damian Eyre, 20 responded to a report of an abandoned car when they were gunned down at 4:30 am in Walsh Street. Jensen was the best friend and accomplice of Victor Pierce, Kathy Pettingril’s son. He along with Trevor Pettingril would face the murder trial and both would be acquitted for the deaths of the police officers. A version of this event was depicted in Animal Kingdom as well as being mentioned several times in Underbelly Files: Tell Them Lucifer was Here.

On the 15th December 2009, Katie Pierce, Victor’s 24 year old daughter would die of a heroin overdose. In Animal Kingdom ‘Pope’ kills the 16 year old girlfriend of his nephew by forcibly injecting her with an overdose of heroin.

Essentially these films extinguish the myth of Australia as an everyone-needs-good-neighbours, surfing, Anglo-Saxon paradise.  Okay it is the movies not real life but fiction is borne from fact.


One comment

  1. Mort Brendon · · Reply

    Great review I’m going to check it out this weekend.

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