Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Survival of the Fittest

I wish that Animal Kingdom (2010, directed by David Michôd) wasn't as relentlessly downbeat as it is, because it makes getting to its utterly magnificent final frame a bit of a slog. I mean, I probably like movies about bad people doing bad things more than the next person--don't get me wrong--but when a film hoards its first (and only) smile-worthy moment for the end of the movie, it tends to make me wonder why I'm watching. This is all orchestrated, of course, and the film has a veneer of artiness to go along with its unpleasant gaze into the lives of lowlifes, and, as I say, the punch line is magnificent, but this is a strategy that tends to diminish the movie a bit. When I look back on it, I'll say: "That was hard to get through, but worth it." Or maybe I'll forget to qualify it. In retrospect, I'll probably steer interested viewers to the much more diabolically entertaining The Square, which plays in the same ballpark, but with more savoir faire.

The story here finds young Josh Cody being taken into the arms of his extended family after his mother ODs on heroin. His mother had previously maintained a studied distance from her family, and no wonder, because they're a clan of right monsters, whose means of sustaining themselves is crime. Each of Josh's uncles is a damaged goods, whether the paranoid drug dealing Craig, the disaffected, coke-addled Darren, or the dead-eyed, psychopathic Pope. They're lorded over by their mother, Janine, who dotes on her boys with a bit more "affection" than seems healthy. This is a crime family in crisis, too. The wheels are coming off their various enterprises, and a deep wedge is driven into the family when Pope's friend, Baz, is assassinated by rogue cops. Baz was the closest thing to a moral compass in the movie: a seemingly nice enough guy who was planning to go straight after making some money in the stock market. At Pope's urging, the Cody boys decide to stage a reprisal, taking out two of the cops responsible for Baz's death. This is where the family's main adversary comes in. This is Sgt Nathan Leckie, who sees in Cody an innocent that needs to be saved and a means to penetrate the Cody family. It doesn't quite work out that way in the end...

The obvious point of reference for Animal Kingdom is Goodfellas. Josh is the innocent thrown into the deep end, a la the young Henry Hill, while the Cody family is Henry Hill's family at the end of that movie, though their disintegration occupies the entire running time of the film rather than just the climactic scenes. Animal Kingdom also charts a hard fall from innocence. Josh may start the film as a naif, but he ends it a monster. The sucking vortex at the heart of film noir pulls hard on the characters in this film.

Animal Kingdom received an Oscar nomination for Jackie Weaver, who plays Janine "Smurf" Cody, and for most of the movie, I wondered why. She was mostly in the background. But then the last 15 minutes or so unspool and she stands revealed as the true power of the Cody clan, pulling the strings while maintaining the veneer and personality of a bubbly housewife going to bat for her boys. When she cajoles one of her associates in the police into doing her business, she scolds him with "You've done some very bad things, sweetie!" as if he was a misbehaving child. It's an odd performance, but one that's integral to the final effect of the film. The posture of the characters in the film's final shot says everything about her: Josh is finally one of them, a true monster, but having made him into a monster, Janine cannot embrace him because, well, he's not one of her boys.

Visually, this is a deliberately ugly, downscale movie. There are no movie stars in this film, per se, though I suppose you could make an argument for Guy Pearce and Joel Edgerton. There's a kitchen sink aesthetic in the choice of shots, though not in the way they're edited. This is director David Michôd's first film after a career as a film critic and you can see him calculating how best to deploy his influences. The use of music and slow motion in the film lends the proceedings a faux grandeur and forced tragedy, but from my point of view, this seems unearned. There are two reasons for this: first, Josh, played by James Frecheville, is an almost complete cipher. The audience has no emotional investment in him, and, worse, doesn't have any interest in him, either. Second, the REST of the characters are such unredeemed lowlifes that investing them with any kind of operatic stylistics seems at odds with the premise and title of the movie. These are beasts in the kill or be killed jungle, not human beings. The movie makes a point of explaining this outright when Sgt Leckie explains Josh's place in the pecking order, but it also contrasts it with the relative normality of the family of Josh's middle class girlfriend, whose modest household seems like nirvana compared to the hell of the rest of the movie.


Mykal said...

Vulnavia: (I'm loving that, by the way) I've always had a strange love for films that, as you describe Animal Kingdom, save the big, memorable punch for the final moments - especially for those films that run along in neutral for all but the last, big splash.

I think, if intended, it takes discipline and skill to pull this off - just managing to hold audience interest for most of the picture. The picture that leaps to mind for me like this is a movie I actually hated, Lost In Translation - hated, that is, until the last three to five minutes; and those last images in that movie I can’t forget.

I’ll have to give this a try. By your description, I already have a serious crush on Janine, who seems very clear-headed about her essential badness. Bad people doing bad things. Amen.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Mykal.

I like these kinds of punch lines when they're earned, and you're right, it takes discipline. I'll be interested to hear what you think of Animal Kingdom.

I do like watching bad people do bad things. It was H. L. Mencken who said that "It's precisely when people are at their worst that they're the most interesting." He knew a thing or two about that.

Mykal said...

Vulnavia: I watched this on Netflix streaming last night, and I saw the film pretty much as you did. I think I probably liked it a little better, mostly because of the performances of Guy Pearce and, particularly, Ben Mendelsohn as “Pope.”

I thought the film had incredible control, maintaining a real feeling of claustrophobic doom throughout. I enjoyed the way a universe was created were any inkling of kindness or decency was crushed under the weight of the carnivores.

Somehow, the ending felt a bit flat to me. The film was set up for Janine at some point to step up, as are all crime films which feature a family tribe of mother and boys. I am thinking of The Krays, The Grissom Gang, Bloody Momma, etc. From her first scene, the psychological control she wields over her boys with her poison kisses is evident. interestingly, only the psychopath, Pope, is immune to her control.

The ending became unraveled for me. The last image is gripping, but the ending struck me as a concession, somehow - too easy. I was very suddenly, and in an instant, bored. The ending became very predictable the moment Josh begin to work with the lawyers.

I was thinking about that quote from Mencken, wherein people are only interesting when at their worst. I think that is a bit true, but watching a film of people that are nothing but at their worst, all the time, the interest fades. I think their has to be some contrast. Good people doing bad things is very interesting, as is bad people doing good things. Watching shit heels be shit heels feels a bit dull and hopeless.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Mykal.

I think the bad people behaving better than you expect is one of my favorite themes. The movie that encapsulates the idea better than any other that I can think of is Pulp Fiction. Those characters are all lowlifes, too, but the movie goes out of its way to give them each a brief state of grace. I think my main problem with Animal Kingdom is that it does no such thing. As a result, the movie is kind of a sucking moral void. The scenes where the filmmakers try to make them feel tragic through various slow motion scenes properly scored feels unearned to me.

Anyway, thanks for commenting.