THE GRIND WHEEL: Animal Kingdom and The American

Animal Kingdom is a low budget Australian film from David Michod.  The American is the second feature from Anton Corbijin.  Both films skirt genre issues, but in the end Animal Kingdom simply transcends its crime setting, and becomes something much more than either a story of low rent criminals in Melbourne, or anything remotely like melodrama. The American, in the end, is defeated by George Clooney. But more on that in a minute.

Ben Mendalsohn in Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom may be the darkest film of the last twenty years, and that’s saying rather a lot. Halfway through I realized all sense of entertainment (whatever i think that may be) had been leeched out of the film, and I was just sitting contemplating the sheer emptiness and futility of the family before me. Nothing good, or even tolerable was going to come out of this — no amount of intervention or guidance counseling was going to help in the least. The Cody family was hurtling at excess speed toward the great abyss — and then they arrive there.

The basic story (and I wont use any spoilers) is that 17-year-old J. Cody’s  mother ODs, and he has to move in with his aunt….”Grandma Smurf” (the remarkable Jackie Weaver) and her ‘sons” — lifetime criminals all. The head of the “family” is Pope Cody — (a startling and deeply disturbing performance from Ben Mendelsohn) — a psychopath (Grandma at one point, gently urges him to “take his medication again”). The Pope is as frightening a figure as one can find in modern film. Guy Pierce is the vaguely honest cop, but still clueless in a way that is a credit to screenwriter Michod. Young J’s learning curve includes an understanding of the depravity of his own family as well as the utter corruption and expediency of the authority structure. The courtroom sequence….all one minute of it, is a masterpiece of what can be left out of narrative.

This is not a particularly artful film, in terms of mise en scene — and the cinematography is fine, but mostly it’s all about following the taut line of moral reasoning in the narrative. One almost doesn’t notice how good the screenplay actually is. Much like A Prophet, One Eyed Jacks, and The Searchers, one wonders at young J’s next move. Even his next day, as the credits roll.  In one sense it’s a bit like A Prophet, as it clears away superfluous surface bromides about right and wrong. And in each case there is a solid class basis for this paring away of the rationalizations of liberal society. There is no redemption and no hope. There is also nothing like anyone attractive in this film. It’s the least glamorous crime scene one could imagine.

In that final sense, Animal Kingdom is a deeper film than Winter’s Bone, where survival is tinged, however slightly, with the redemptive.  Not in Animal Kingdom. It’s a brutal lesson.

The American is worth a note because of Corbijin’s first film, Control, a sort of bio pic of Joy Division’s self destructive lead singer Ian Curtis. I saw it at Camerimage, the festival in Lodz and remember it as the only good film of that year.  All the more disappointing then, to come to The American. Now, one imagines Corbijin needing Clooney to get this made. So I imagine anyway, because Corbijin was smart enough to make Control — and therefore not stupid enough to use Clooney in a part in which he is on screen EVERY SECOND of the film essentially… unless it was the only way to finance it. The story is a sub category of the gangster’s one final score story. It’s worth comparing it to the much superior The Last Run, with George C. Scott, and directed by Richard Fleischer.  Or Stephen Frears The Hit, or even Antonioni’s The Passenger. They all play with the existential aura of sinner, alone, and seeking a last score (or usually good act) — (and here it occurs to me High Sierra is another related narrative) but finding such score will require sacrifice, and either succumbing to its inevitability or rising above it in some metaphysical way…. or both.

In any event, Clooney is not a stupid actor, and he knows the kind of performance he should give and he makes the correct “acting” choices — but his basic narcissism is simply too large a burden. That coupled to a sense of his basic trivial character. Consequently the film seems disciplined, and amazingly shot (Martin Ruhe) but still never quite becomes the Antonioni (or Bresson) take on the gangster genre. I find it fascinating, however, to ponder the appeal of characters like this. Because I find them amazingly appealing. Maybe it’s just the cut off itself, the ex-pat freedom of an aging single male — undomesticated (and when they choose domestication they usually die) and moving as figures in an existential landscape (note: food is a big part of The American…that small wheel of Pecorino made me hungry for several days).  The Last Run is the most successful of these films largely because of Scott, an actor who spent his career carving out a sense of existential ennui. Scott also was not a narcissist. Hence Fleisher could move along a simple narrative and still provide the deeper shadings the format asks. Corbijin could not. As a final note, one also found it irritating that the casting of the local young hooker went to a veritable fashion model…because correct me if I’m wrong, the prostitutes of villages in the Abruzzi, rarely look like Victoria’s Secret applicants… and look, if one wants to, and I don’t particularly, one could keep going (local auto mechanic just happens to have the right junk around to build a silencer…. it becomes art house McGyver).  Ah well, Corbijin is Dutch — and I wonder about the Dutch anyway. There is always lurking an odd hidden sort of sentimentality. But maybe that’s just me.

–John Steppling

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5 responses to “THE GRIND WHEEL: Animal Kingdom and The American

  1. Well, I agree with everything you’ve said here about these two films. Michod has made a remarkable feral animal of a film that grabs you by the face and doesn’t let you go. I think I know the moment you spoke about – halfway through just feeling pummeled by the sheer numb awfulness of J’s predicament. And it was there all along – from the very first scene where he stands watching the medics work on his mother…then turns to check out the game show…then turns back again to see whether, you know, mom’s dead or not. I did, however, feel a strong sense of completion at the end of the film. J has proven himself in the terms of this world; he has done what is required of him and now perhaps can rest. Not redemption, certainly, but…closure.

    One other thing is that the score of Animal Kingdom deserves all the praise it’s getting.

    The American is not a film one wants to go to bat for…but I liked it and was happy it got made. The writing had a modernist quality that could only survive in a film made by someone with clout – a man fashioning the gun that will be used to kill him – and I always feel grateful to Clooney for putting his celebrity to work on projects that may not be risky, exactly, but have something going on. The cinematography is elegant. And I don’t expect all that much from Clooney as an actor, and I liked his work here more than I have in recent films. But none of this is really to disagree with you and I’ll have to check out the Last Run, which I saw too long ago…

  2. here is richard brody (New Yorker) on The American:
    ““The American” (which David Denby reviews in the magazine this week) went wrong in its very first scene, when the character played by George Clooney guns down a couple of people in a snowy Swedish field and then rifles through their pockets—and the viewer doesn’t get to see what he finds there. Moments later, this contract killer takes a train from Munich to Rome and we never know what he did with the time, and then he drives from Rome to a small Italian village and we don’t hear what (if anything) he was listening to on the radio or his iPod. At this point, the movie was essentially over for me, and the rest of the movie provided more of the same: a series of gestures and actions that were carefully and rigorously (in the worst sense of the word) selected not to transmit knowledge and understanding but to withhold it.
    “The American” is a ludicrous mimicry of a sort of modernism that actually rests on the narrow attitudes of a false classicism—the kind that never actually constrained the true classics.”

    Now i dont always, at all, like Brody — but his points are well taken. That said, i have to confess I felt I was being a bit hard on The American. I rather enjoyed it, and was happy enough to enjoy the cinematography, and the conventions of the genre. Still…..Brody is right when he says the film is intentionally with-holding, in the wrong sense of that term. Its all manner, like a prospectus for an actual movie.

    But Guy, you’re right about Animal Kingdom. Now, several days later, the film seems even better than when I first saw it. It is a relentless spiral downward….and notwithstanding your observation about closure, which is correct I think, the nihilism of the entire canvas is just chilling.

  3. In Animal Kingdom we see the long term consequences of ignorance, bad luck and poor choices. J’s mother and Grandma Smurf having babies when they were babies. So when we meet J in the first scene it is he who is ‘taking care’ of his dead mother when he is still too young to take care of himself. A boywho has been so poorly looked after by his mother that his uncle has to tell him to wash after he pees and then explain how to wash your hands properly. It’s like they’re all unconscious big kids, including the cops, breaking the rules or stiff, fearful middle class folks, like the girl’s parents, who haven’t a clue because they’re so busy following the rules.
    In most American films of this genre, the consequences are off in the future or in the past. This film is so emotionally dark and unrelenting because the dye has been cast. As Americans we don’t like that narrative. It seems fatalistic and it is. Not everyone who comes from such a family goes down in flames. So we look at the exception and not the rule. We refuse to consider class context in our society. We want to hear the stories of the ‘under educated’ single mother who raised a son didn’t join a gang and put the rest away where we think we don’t have to deal with their wounds or impending release.
    I assume that this film will be remade here. I also assume that when it is remade there will be lots more blood but the class elements will be erased and J will somehow be redeemed.

  4. a double bill: Nil by Mouth and The Blind Side……….and then throw in Animal Kingdom and (pick from any ten US studio films that chronicle the triumph against all odds of some poor — rural or inner city — kid). Nancy’s comments are to the point, and remind us, again, of the virus of sentimentality in the American narrative. The sentimental is always a lie, and its a lie first…before its other lies…by virtue of the reductive universe it must construct to defend such lies.

  5. Nil by Mouth played even darker to me than Animal Kingdom and I don’t know Blind Side…but I totally agree with you and I think Nancy is completely correct. People, in general, feel overwhelmed by the weight of what they don’t understand and there’s a sense today that we really can’t handle a clear depiction of suffering. It’s all a bit too much and we’re addicted to the small, comforting elations of redemption narratives, the victories that await the protagonists of our narratives. All suffering must have a purpose and the purpose must be linked to enduring happiness, or something. This is the lie we, as a culture, have embraced and our sentimental narratives exist to buttress and re-inforce the lie; to distract our attention from where the sawdust is popping through the seams where the thread has come loose.

    And in the spirit of the resignation we are all marinaded in you could say, well, how does a film like Animal Kingdom help matters? What are we supposed to do to prevent bad parenting? Urban poverty and crime? Police brutality? But of course by posing these kinds of questions we are already in the shadow of the lie, because what makes the film great is how Michod gets us walking in J’s shoes. He’s no longer an other. We understand why he makes the choices he makes. We’re drawn close enough so that our distancing and judgmental attitudes are disabled, jammed up. And so the way J is fucked by how his perceptual attitudes have been shaped by the accidents of his environment, his life-circumstances, are only a version of the way our own perceptions have been hemmed in and conditioned. Through J, and the extremity of what unfolds for him, we come to see our own entrapment and our own inability to fully inhabit our own freedom. And this, of course, is why narratives with some truth to them are worth all the bother. And it’s always been this way too.

    As for Brody’s comments, they’re real intelligent…but I just didn’t have that experience. I didn’t need to know what he found in the pockets etc. That all seemed like McGuffin stuff. But, again, I wouldn’t argue with someone who didn’t respond to The American…but with Animal Kingdom I’d want to really know why…

    G

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