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.