Australian hit Animal Kingdom, which just opened in limited stateside release to stellar reviews, is that rare movie that surprises you with the discovery of an exciting new writer-director. David Michod's crime drama won the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic world cinema at Sundance last January, where Sony Pictures Classics scooped it up. One performance is emerging from the film's ensemble as a potential awards contender: Jacki Weaver's powerful matriarch.
Michod wrote the first Animal Kingdom draft over a decade ago, soon after graduating from film school in Melbourne. Then-journalist (now agent) Bec Smith gave him a job editing Inside Film back in his home town, Sydney, to pay the bills. In the meantime, he wrote other scripts (including fellow Sundance entry Hesher) and directed the calling-card short Crossbow.
Not unlike Goodfellas, which takes us inside a violent gangster milieu, Michod shows us a group of unsavory killer thugs on the run from the Melbourne cops, led by Guy Pearce. We observe the Cody clan from the POV of their 17-year-old relative J (James Frecheville), who moves in with them after his mother dies of a heroin overdose. He finds his uncles (Ben Mendelsohn, Sullivan Stapleton, and Luke Ford) magnetic and appealing, but then (SPOILER ALERT!), one by one, they get killed. He thinks his grandmother (Weaver), who rules the clan with steely love (and enjoys kissing her sons on the mouth), is on his side. Little does he know.
"It was important for me when writing a character to at least be able to empathize with them enough to find them real and interesting," Michod says. "I liked the idea of making a film in which you feel connected strongly to a particular character for a period of time, then get connected to a different character. The kid is attaching himself to people in the hope that he will find a place. He realizes that these people are unreliable, untrustworthy or doomed. He needs to engineer his own place in the world."
This world is unsettling to say the least. As the baton of power is passed from one to the other, J eventually comes in contact with Pearce's cop, who lures him into (perhaps) cooperating by being decent to him. Michod's challenge was to keep the narrative flowing through all the constant disorientation. "I wanted to make something big and rich and substantial and sprawling with lots of characters and locations," he says, "and have genuine menace running underneath it. It was a balancing act, delicate. You could only spread so far before it started losing menace and tension. All films end up tighter than they were shot. I was mainly juggling the balance between sprawl and tension."
He's tickled that Aussie star Weaver (Picnic at Hanging Rock) is grabbing praise. "I love the way Jacki's character creeps up on you," he says. "You don't realize how fundamental to the whole experience she will be. It's about a woman who has built her whole sense of self in her relationship with these powerful and dangerous young boys, her children. There's something genuinely proprietary and selfish, and she expresses that love in inappropriate intimacy."
Animal Kingdom fits inside the wide spectrum of gangster movies, perhaps temperamentally closer to the relative naturalism of The Godfather films or Heat than the heightened style of Guy Ritchie. "I wanted the characters to be larger than life but not implausible," says Michod.
Next up: Michod will painstakingly build another film world brick by brick, from scratch.