Animal Kingdom

As an Australian I like to see good Australian films. Our movies should say something about us and our society, if only obliquely. That’s not something you can legislate for, but the hurdy-gurdy imperatives of art and capitalism combined make for a mix perhaps truer than any proscribed program.

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It’s my take that many Australian movies reflect too narrow a slice of society, generally the down-trodden and disadvantaged extremes. They are earnest and well-intentioned, which is really just another way of saying worthy and dull. They are made by writers and directors who wear their heart on their sleeve and want to impart a message, mostly written in block letters.

The best art has a message, but it is subsumed within the art and received subliminally: the story comes first. This is something our callow graduates from film school need learn; in fact it’s something they should have learned in film school.

There is a place for the gritty kitchen sink dramas we too often make, but we make them too often: the balance is wrong. Though it seems a dirty word, we need more commercial movies that tell a good story well. Lantana is an example of striking the right balance between story-telling integrity and entertainment: it’s a great movie, and there are others like it, though too few.

What’s been lacking are the everyday movies, the comedies, the thrillers, the genre pieces that draw crowds in because they are entertaining. If they reveal something of Australian life – as inevitably they will – then so much the better.

Seems to me the balance is slowly shifting in recent times. Movies like Wolf Creek and The Proposition, were well-made films that were entertaining and successful. There have been probably another dozen movies of varying quality since, from The Square to I Love You Too which have continued the trend.

Right now there are two locally made movies that the pre-release hype tells us are exceptional genre pieces. Both are ‘crime’ movies for want of a better descriptor, Red Hill and Animal Kingdom. Despite plenty of real life stories to draw from and TV success this has not been a rich genre for Australian movie-making when it is such a staple abroad. 

I’ve not yet seen Red Hill, but I saw Animal Kingdom in preview the other night. It’s a confronting, bleak movie that hits you with a jolt. Obviously based upon the Walsh Street killings of the late eighties, fictionalised and updated to present day, it’s basically the tale of an extended crime family and its war with the Victorian police. Clearly the protagonists in this film are based upon Victor Peirce and his cronies, though the extended family resembles family, crime matriarch Kath Pettingill and her clan, violent and tragic.

I remember the community shock when the two police officers were gunned down in Walsh Street. I lived a few streets away, and walked by the scene on my way to work the next day. It’s a chilling scene in the movie as we see the set-up, the abandoned car in the middle of a suburban street and the two young police investigating it. As a Melburnian you know what’s coming and it sets you on edge waiting for it to unfold. Then it happens, bang, the two coppers are ambushed ruthlessly and left lying dead in the street.

The fall-out from that crime continued for many years after and was splashed across the city’s media. In time one legendary crime was succeeded by another and the players, like few places in the world, became household names:  Wendy and Victor Peirce in this instance, Carl Williams, Mick Gatto, the Moran brothers, and so on.

Watching the film was disquieting at times, but it felt something necessary. There is a dispiriting inevitability to the action portrayed on the screen. Once the first domino is tipped the course of events that follow have a brutal and violent predictability, as it was in reality. Characters die or become conditioned to a world much different to ours, prey or preyed upon; they become enmeshed in the machinations and take on a role within the ‘animal’ hierarchy, playing their part to its bitter conclusion.

There are no heroes in this – even the police come off looking a little soiled – and a lot of victims. There are some decent people, most of whom become innocent victims, and a few genuinely scary characters. In the end you’re left with a sense of enduring brutality – the brutality of casual and easily inflicted violence. It’s chilling and unglamorous. It is not easy viewing, but it’s necessary in the sense that it exposes the ruthless reality of the criminal animal kingdom, where dog eats dog as a matter of course, and the top dog has the biggest bite.

It’s an expertly made movie with an expert cast acting expertly. Ben Mendelsohn is a consistently good actor, and is perfect as the Victor Peirce character, amiable one minute and a psychopath the next. Jacki Weaver plays the matriarch, the Kath Pettingill replica, Wendy Peirce role (in real life they were a couple, but here mother and son, reflective of Wendy Peirce now rather than as she was then). Guy Pearce plays the straight as an arrow copper, complete with mo, and Joel Edgerton is convincing as the ill-fated crim looking to go straight – the Graham Jensen role I guess, whose killing started it all.Ultimately this is a movie of a tragic story. It’s not going to be uplifting. There is the sense that this will ever be the way, that this struggle will never end and that except for a few characters here and there it will always be dirty, dark and tawdry. There are no winners, though if you had to pick a side it’s clear that in the end the boys in blue will get you.

It's the most impressive Australian movie I've seen for ages, and mesmerising regardless of where it comes from. The director, David Michod, has the goods, and is worth looking out for. See it.

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