One of the under-the-radar Oscar nominees (Jacki Weaver, Best Supporting Actress) can now be seen on DVD. Don't miss David Michôd's Australian crime drama.
Note: This interview originally ran in August when Animal Kingdom was released theatrically. Catch it now on DVD, on demand, and via Netflix!
Film festival buzz can be a confusing cloudy thing. So many titles are bandied about as “must-sees” and potential winners that it can take days for the true sensations to become unmistakably visible from the fog. Animal Kingdom, the new Australian crime drama from first-time feature director David Michôd, was one of the titles that just kept popping up in conversations at Sundance this past January. The director and his star, actor Ben Mendelsohn, had never been to the festival before and found the experience dizzying.
“You feel so totally locked in your own bubble,” Michôd recalls, months later as the friendly pair sit across from each other for a roundtable discussion in New York. “You don't really get any opportunity to sense what's going on for other filmmakers. You can feel like you're center of the universe. But you're never quite sure if that's a delusion of grandeur.” When the festival wrapped, the film took home the World Cinema Grand Jury Dramatic prize. “In our case, we were actually the center of the universe,” the first timer adds, joking, with appreciative bewilderment.
Seven months later, the film is enjoying another wave of critical buzz. Animal Kingdom began its proper theatrical release at home in Australia in June. On August 13, American audiences will get their chance to see the acclaimed drama.
The movie tells the story of a suddenly orphaned teenager, Joshua “J” Cody (newcomer James Frecheville), who is absorbed into his estranged extended family when his grandmother “Smurf” (Jacki Weaver) arrives to fetch him. Smurf lives in a house paid for by the crimes of "The Cody Boys," her three sons. Their long time life of crime is beginning to wear on all of them and the cops, including a persistent homicide detective (Guy Pearce), are closing in. The eldest son Pope (Mendelssohn) is under constant police surveillance.
Animal Kingdom’s fresh director Michôd and the established screen actor Mendelsohn have an easy rapport in person—they’ve known each other for years—never stepping on each other’s answers, but elaborating on them and often deferring to their respective talents.
“You want me to kick off?” the actor asks his director before discussing his character Pope and the chilling family dynamic from the film. “Their function is, in a way, quite utilitarian, if you'd like,” Mendelsohn explains. “They make their money from crime. They've got a couple of branches of it, most notably armed robbery and now, increasingly, with drugs. From our point of view we looked at it as very much just what needs to be done. They are functional in that way.
“As far as Pope personally, he is a patriarch without the ability to be a patriarch that guides in anyway. He can only continue to cadaverize the family. That's all he's really capable of.”
Michôd has a similar view of the Pope character. “He's a dangerously unstable molecule. But he functions. And he functions because of the basic structure that's around him, which is a family of sorts. As illegitimate as that structure is, it is a structure nonetheless.”
Though the film belongs to the familiar crime family genre, Michôd’s deft understanding and twisting of what he acknowledges as “conventional family tropes” is what elevates the film. “It’s in many ways based on the observations of my own family and families of friends and particularly the way in which very tight knit, intimate families… the closer you look at them the more toxic they seem. You lift that out and put it inside a dangerous criminal environment, and then a lot of the facets of that quite conventional behavior become heightened and malevolent.”
The matriarch Smurf is the key to this family unit. Mendelsohn declares his co-star Jacki Weaver an Australian “national treasure.” American audiences will be less familiar with the actress, but undoubtedly fascinated by her characterization. “She really is the provider of the structure of the family. She's kind of like your best friend and your worst enemy at the same time. She's like having a big drug habit. You've got to have her. When you've got her it kind of all makes sense but boy it's f***ing you up at the same time.”
Weaver’s performance thrilled the director, too. He drifts back to Sundance memories while describing her role in the otherwise entirely male dynamic. “There was this palpable kind of testosterone ball rolling up and down Main Street. Whenever this ball would roll into a room, you could suddenly feel something was about to get broken. As soon as Jacki walked into the room, everything just became workable and so functional. All of the boys were so deferential to her, and so respectful. Suddenly the danger was containable. And it was really quite beautiful watching that parallel. Even somewhere as strange as Park City, Utah, the dynamic felt the same as it did in that family when we were shooting it.”
The director understands that casting was crucial to the movie’s success, calling the process a “precarious puzzle.” He says, “I can put as much care and attention as I like into the way the movie looks and sounds, but it's in the performance that it lives and breathes. Putting together that jigsaw puzzle is everything in a way.”
He cites the Cray character as a classic example of how important casting is. “The middle brother with the tattoos,” he explains, recalling the auditions. “It's not always a question of talent, but a question of alchemy and chemistry. On the page his character read quite crazy. And a number of actors did tests for that character that were a little too crazy or a little too cold. I always knew that that character needed warmth. And so it's thrilling when an actor like Sullivan Stapleton walks in the room and fills that character’s shoes and immediately gives you a sense of what that character is going to feel like and look like and, therefore, what the movie is going to look and feel like.”
But while the director often credits the ensemble of performances for the film’s success, the actor in the room has other ideas. Mendelsohn says it’s too easy to forget Michôd, “this unassuming master craftsman across the giant oak table,” while you’re enjoying the film. The screenplay’s intricate structure and characterizations gave them so many ways in as actors. “He had a long gestation period, and he kept refining it the whole way through. I read one of the earliest drafts of this, and it doesn't bear a lot of resemblance to what we've ended up with. David's kept working the entire way through… working, learning, and look at him now. It's a great achievement.”
So, what does this ‘unassuming craftsman’ hope audiences take away from the movie? “I just hope they have a really rich and rewarding cinema experience,” Michôd says. “I feel like in any given year I might see only two or three films that genuinely thrill me and see a lot that leave me feeling cold. My aspiration was to make a film that felt substantial.”
He did just that. Animal Kingdom is the kind of calling card that will get you noticed. The conversation at the press table keeps returning to the film’s ambiguous but perfectly pitched ending. “What I’m hoping to explore,” the director explains, “is how a young man might form for himself some kind of moral code in a profoundly corrupt moral universe. For that reason I like the ambiguity of the ending. It feels like closure, I hope, and yet you’re left with all sorts of questions about what kind of man this boy might become.”
This fledgling writer/director may have made a movie about an unformed young man, but his debut is so confidently made, you can feel entirely optimistic about what kind of director he’s already become.