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.
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.