Category Archives: Animal Kingdom

Snowtown

2010 was a great year for Australian crime film. In addition to the excellent Animal Kingdom, last year saw the release of the neo-noir Western,  Red Hill, and the gritty revenge flick, The Horseman.

While one can argue the merits and otherwise of aspects of these films, all three were highly original, energetic attempts to put an Australian face on some of key sub-genres of crime film.

Interestingly, all three were also made by first time directors.

This trend appears set to continue in 2011 with the yet to be released Snowtown, first time director Justin Kurzal’s take on one of Australia’s worst serial killing sprees, the ‘Snowtown murders’.

For those who need to be brought up to speed, the Snowtown murders, also known as the ‘bodies in the barrels murders’, involved the killing of 12 people between August 1992 and May 1999. The crimes were discovered when the remains of  8 of the victims were found in barrels of acid in a disused bank building in Snowtown, South Australia, a small economically depressed area 145 kilometres north of Adelaide.

Four people were eventually arrested for the murders. The ringleader, John Bunting, was a white trash suburban psychopath with neo-Nazi leanings who hated gays, pedophiles, very fat people and drug users.

The victims were killed, often tortured beforehand, on a whim for perceived infringements of Bunting’s personal code. They included friends and relatives of the killers. Usually, the victims social security and bank details were obtained and the murderers continued to collect their benefits after their deaths.

As a rule, I ‘m not usually a huge fan of true crime film, but if the menace Kurzal has managed to cram into this very short teaser trailer is anything to go by, Snowtown it looks pretty compelling. The vibe I get from it is similar to the 1998 Australian film The Boys.

Loosely based on another real life crime, the rape and killing of a young nurse in Sydney, The Boys focused on the 24 hours leading up to the crime, in which violent psychopath Brett Sprague (brilliantly played by Aussie actor David Wehnam), is released from prison and returns to his long-suffering mother’s house in Sydney’s western suburbs.

It’s been several years since I’ve seen The Boys, but I remember the ominous, claustrophobic feel produced as Speague, accompanied by a moody score by Australian jazz bad The Necks, prowled the interiors of the mother’s flimsy fibro house like a ticking time bomb, bashing her boyfriend, abusing his girlfriend, and winding up his two brothers. From the very first frame there’s a sense bad things are going to happen, that in no way detracts from the horror for the viewer when they do.

The Boys attempted to examine what kind of people would commit such a horrendous crime and the environment that would produce them. Snowtown looks set to cover similar terrain, hopefully with similar effectiveness.

Snowtown will premier at the Adelaide film Festival in late February.

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Animal Kingdom

There’ll come a day when the Australian film and television industry will have to create a special award for Melbourne’s crime families in recognition of their services in providing so much rich material for screenwriters. Present to accept the award will be whatever members of the Pettingill family who are not dead or incarcerated.

For those readers not familiar with the name, the Pettingill family were Melbourne’s most notorious crime family. They were involved in drug dealing, murder and armed robbery. Two of the sons stood trial in 1998 for the shooting of a couple of Victorian police officers. They were acquitted but are still widely suspected of committing the killings.

Their exploits have also formed the basis for some of the country’s best crime television, including the ABC series Janus and Phoenix, and more recently the film, Animal Kingdom.

Animal Kingdom is the best known of the three Australian crime films released in 2010. Unusually for an Australian film, not only has it received international critical acclaim (including a Golden Globes nomination for actress Jacki Weaver),  it was a success locally.

Most interestingly, Animal Kingdom, along with Red Hill and The Horseman, the two other local crime releases in 2010, were all made by first time film directors, a big improvement on the lackluster Australian crime cinema scene in 2009.

After his mother’s heroin overdose, 17 year-old Josh (James Fresheville) has no choice but to live with his grandmother Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody (Weaver) and her family who he has not had contact with for years.

Doubts about the wisdom of this arrangement are apparent from the first morning Josh wakes up in his new surroundings to find Uncle Baz (Joel  Edgerton) counting out the proceeds of the latest armed robbery on the kitchen table as Janine makes orange juice.

Gradually, we meet the other uncles. Uncle Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is a tattooed, twitchy drug dealer. The youngest uncle, Darren, is like a beaten dog struggling to keep the last vestiges of his decency (and sanity) from being sucked dry by his siblings.

But they are wall flowers compared  Uncle ‘Pope’ (Ben Mendlesohn). On the run from the armed robbery squad who have the entire family under 24-7 surveillance, Pope is an old-school heist guy and sociopath completely unable to deal with normal society.

As the film’s title suggests, Josh and his pretty and naive girlfriend Nicole (Laura Wheelright) are like slow-moving animals amid the snarling pack of carnivores that is the Cody crime family

The only one with any brains or common sense is Baz. He can see the family’s power is on the wane and wants to go legit. His subsequent murder by rogue cops is the signal for all hell to break loose.

In revenge, Pope, Craig and Darren kill two police, escaping in a car stolen by Josh. Police quickly finger the younger member of the Cody family as the weak link. Even though Josh can tell he’s in deep shit, he totally underestimates the lengths his uncles will go to cover their backs.

I have to admit to not being all that taken by Animal Kingdom when I saw it soon after its release. In particular, I thought that the bumbling efforts by the police to protect Josh lessoned the film’s dramatic pace. As did the fact that the uncles get off the wrap for murdering the cops with such apparent ease.

These things still bugged me a little second time around but they’re small beer compared to the film’s strengths. The look of Animal Kingdom is great. I can’t remember a film where Melbourne looked so downbeat and gritty.

While aficionados of Pettingill’s clan’s previous cinematic outings will recognise many of the characters, writer and director David Michod seems to breath new life into them.

The stand out performance is Weaver’s turn as the scheming matriarch,  looking after her boys with barely contained Incestuous lust. She is the glue that holds the film together. The brothers all put in solid performances, particularly Mendlesohn’s ticking time bomb portrayal of Pope. Guy Pearse is good as Leckie,the kind-hearted but ineffectual cop trying to close the Cody family down.

As Josh’s girlfriend Laura Wheelright managers too pull off being both vulnerable and jaded. She’s the perfect foil for Fresheville. His character has shut so much of himself down, to the point where he almost appears to be sleep walking through the film. It’s a logical reaction to his day-to-day existence, first with his heroin addicted mother, then with his adopted family.

Fresheville’s performance mirrors one of the most unsettling aspects of Animal Kingdom, the way that so much of the film’s plot unfolds with little context or for the most part explanation about what’s going on.

One day Josh is living with his junkie mother, the next he shared digs with a notorious crime family. The death of his mother, the exploits of the Cody family, police corruption, the legal system,  nothing is reasoned or analysed. They just happen.

The effect is deeply unsettling.