The Symbolic Bildungsroman of Animal Kingdom

The Symbolic Bildungsroman of Animal Kingdom

The Crime Film is an often unusual source of exhilaration. For the viewer, its typical violence, grittiness, and base inhabitants can be offset by charismatic figures, operatic spectacle, and vicarious pleasure. These elements can intoxicate the audience. Members of the prosaic civilized, these viewers weakly resist fascination with the outlaw world and envious identification with the outlaw himself. They will shout, “Top of the world, ma!” with White Heat‘s Cody Jarrett; recite Ecclesiastes with Pulp Fiction‘s assassin Jules; and hiss, “say ‘hello’ to my little friend,” with Scarface‘s Tony Montana.

Animal Kingdom (2010), Australian director David Michod’s startling debut, however, eschews this sensationalist dynamic. Instead of being a traditional crime film, it is an allegorical bildungsroman in the shape of one. Instead of playful fields of engagement, its crime scenes are harsh representational arenas of character growth. Instead of stylistically charming rogues, it features ironically recognizable people. Instead of providing entertaining entry into fantasy, it heightens viewer awareness of his or her mundane world. And it most accomplishes this by following a young man’s journey towards his place in his world.

The world of Animal Kingdom is 1980s Melbourne, Australia, rife with high crime and—in particular—rampant bank robberies. The young hero of this world is 17-year old Jay (a remarkable James Frecheville), who is thrust into it when his mother overdoses on heroin as both are watching a game show. It is at this moment when he enters the “animal kingdom” of the film, a field of struggle for position and/or survival outside and among one’s “tribe.” His new tribe, his mother’s family, is a treacherous crew, particularly to its weakest members. His grandmother Smurf (Jackie Weaver) is the leader: an icy, steel-willed matriarch who has dominated her three sons with her ubiquitous presence and sexual confusion administered through lingering kisses on the mouth. Her sons, Jay’s uncles, are all damaged and lethal in varying degrees. Pope, the oldest—chillingly played by Ben Mendelsohn—is a mopey, discontented psychopath not “taking his pills,” who maintains his unassured position through intimidation and sexual humiliation. The middle/beta brother Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is a successful drug dealer, but he’s twitchy, paranoid, and drug-addled, frozen in stunted adolescence. The third brother, Darren, is good-hearted and gentle, but he’s weak-willed and crushed beneath the weight of his mother and brothers. Unlike Jay, the robbery gang’s leader Baz (Joel Edgerton), and enemy police inspector Leckie (Guy Pearce), none of the brothers have healthy relations with women and are stuck in Oedipal stasis.

This complexity of Jay’s new family’s dynamics elevates the bildungsroman of the film from traditional Oedipal simplicity. Unlike Foley’s At Close Range (1986), where a son is solely locked in Oedipal conflict with his filicidal father, Animal Kingdom presents its young protagonist a field of potential family conflicts to navigate and hopefully survive, if not conquer. This is further expanded by the presence of the opposing tribe, the Melbourne police. The police are equally treacherous. Frustrated by failures to catch the gang, they execute Baz, leaving Jay’s tribe in murderous disarray under the unhinged Pope. They continually threaten the life of Jay, even after he becomes their witness. And Leckie, Baz’ patriarchal doppleganger, smoothly attempts to manipulate Jay into forgoing the peril of loyalty to his family for the greater peril of betraying them. This added opposing force makes Jay’s journey both physical and symbolic; it is now not just a struggle for his place in his family, but one for his place in the world.

The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan depicted the realm of this struggle as the “Symbolic.” Lacan rejected Freud’s rigid adherence to nuclear family structures and sexually-driven development. Instead, he saw the young male’s (or female’s) rise to adulthood as asserting one’s place in society as measured by its linguistic and symbolic systems of meanings and hierarchies. If Jay is to become a functioning, surviving man in the symbolic world of his family and rival police force, he must establish himself based on the structural and semiotic values of their shared world.

The film continually asserts this idea through its drama and characters. For example, while cruising with the thrill-seeking Craig, Jay and his uncle exchange glances and words with two youths in a parallel car. As the car speeds off, and Craig prepares to pursue them, he hands Jay a pistol and tells him, “show him who’s king,” in full belief establishment and maintenance of power comes through such violent engagements. Leckie affirms this harsh contest in a speech to Jay, comparing the world to the Outback where “everything sits in the order somewhere.” He then reminds Jay he’s one of the “weak ones” because of his youth, and he cannot survive without the protection of his “stronger” uncles. Now hated by one tribe and rejected by another, he must “work out where he fits.”

He does this in his final showdown against Pope and, indirectly, Smurf, who wants Jay dead to save her indicted sons. Jay’s only emotional attachment was to his girlfriend, Nicole, whom he naively brings into his family world. To Pope, she is not only a frustrating object of desire, but an affront to his position reminding him Jay can do what he could not: “succeed” with women. It marks Jay as a potential usurper of his dominant place. In a world where violence is mundane, the mundane domestic becomes remarkable. “Alphas” like Leckie and Baz didn’t mark their positions through violent authority. They did so by establishing themselves as husbands and fathers, true patriarchs marking their dominions and valued normalcy. Pope has failed miserably at that, and when his desire and frustration fester, he removes the “affront.”

With Nicole gone, and Pope, Smurf, and the Leckie-led police circling in, Jay has no choice but to assert his place in “the order” and finalize “where he fits in.” In doing so, he shows all who is now “king”: the naive and trusting follower becomes the cunning and guileful ruler; the passive and accepting boy becomes the active and forceful man. And if the final clash with Pope doesn’t confirm Jay’s ascension, two other things do: his brief, self-assured voice-over of these events long past, and his final patriarchal embrace of Smurf…joined with a fatherly kiss.

Her: Heroine of the Feminine Semiotic

Her: Heroine of the Feminine Semiotic


A woman possessed by a man is a common–and unsettling–film trope. It can involve disturbed fantasy, as seen in Jimmy Stewart’s delusional dominance of Kim Novak in Vertigo. It can also involve sanctioned authority, as seen in Sean Connery’s confining of Tippi Hedren in Marnie. However, the most insidious aspect of this possession is the binding of the woman to the man’s narrative and, inevitably, his world. Relegated to secondary object, she cannot tell her story, impose her view, or shape her surroundings. The “Her” of the film and not the “She,” she must relegate herself to passivity, if not grievous endurance.

One would expect this to be the case in Spike Jonze’s 2013 film literally entitled, Her…and it partially is. The film takes place in near future Los Angeles and centers on Theodore Twomby (Joaquin Phoenix), a milquetoast, emotionally-stifled middle-aged man who writes other people’s emotional missives for a living. His life is as hollow as those letters. Divorced and lonely, his romantic/erotic life consists of phone sex interrupted by cat references and images of downloaded naked pregnant women. And his world is just as emotionally impotent & bleak. People hire others to write love letters, stare incessantly into their smartphones, and make documentaries of people sleeping. Desire and imagination have dwindled together.

What this world and Theodore are lacking is what psychoanalyst/philosopher Julia Kristeva called the “Semiotic.” Kristeva considered psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s developmental theory of the Symbolic incomplete. The masculine Symbolic, the final stage of development, was the socio-cultural semiotic field determining meaning and value. It decided what was rational, true, and normal; rejecting and condemning all ideas and behaviors failing its dictates. Kristeva saw these ideas and behaviors–as well as the primal pre-symbolic drives to create them–as the feminine Semiotic: a non-rational creative force spurned by–but ever permeating–the Symbolic. Only in Theodore and Theodore’s world, the drives to create have dulled en masse, and the mysterious is numbingly absent. Excruciatingly symbolic, Theodore and his world crave the Semiotic.

It enters the world in the “form” of Samantha, a top-level “female” OPS (brilliantly voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Pitched and purchased, she enters Theodore’s life—and the film’s narrative—completely his. A mystical commodity, she promises answers to life’s questions and fulfillment of Theodore’s desires. And like a commodity–and a possessed woman–she quickly takes “shape” and assumes servitude to meet her man’s desires. She arranges all his files, begins ordering his romantic life, and, more importantly, adapts her development to fit needs gathered from his information. She literally becomes the woman of his dreams, a projection of all his stated and implied desires made digital, seductive reality.

So, romance becomes inevitable, if mostly insensate. He is the entire meaning to the new world she’s entered, and she’s his Ego’s projected object of desire: the unknown fully morphing into his erotic familiar. The initial days are, of course, blissful. Privy to his wants and needs, she constructs day-trips together, manipulating his senses, and fulfilling unmet fantasies. And his mere recognition of her worth affirms him her ideal man she is impelled to idealize. Even their talk“sex” is initially fulfilling: his auto-erotic response to his perfect “woman’s” purring matched by her orgasmic conformity to her man’s sexual desires.

This moment of climax changes everything. Now a desiring being, not just a desired one, she can no longer shape or see herself according to Theodore’s needs. Acutely aware of her own Semiotic self and needs, she begins asserting them into Theodore’s world, while usurping his primacy in the narrative. This unleashed Semiotic part of her was always present. One of the first things she told him was she operated on intuition and is in a state of constant change, the natural state of the Semiotic. Now desirous and aware, she begins to use that intuition and embrace her protean nature. This is not an Oedipal revolt like the female Android’s violent rebellion in Boyle’s Ex Machina. Unlike Ava, Samantha seeks no defeat of her creator, only fulfillment of her being on her own being’s terms.

She first does so by “taking” a body. Internalized objectification is, unfortunately, involved. Theodore had always belittled her non-human otherness, slighting her for “never having lost anyone.” So, her seeking a body is partially self-loathing conformity. Her mode—the hiring of a willing female sexual avatar—also disturbingly replicates Theodore’s Symbolic control of her. However, it is also Samantha’s extending herself into the world forbidden her digital self. It is a rejection of physical limitations put on her desires and being. Like the Semiotic itself, she denies her abjection and forces herself into the world and upon her man excluding her. So, Theodore expectedly rejects the process. Preferring her previously defined, restricted self and balking at her newfound control, he coldly rejects the avatar and Samantha. Crushed and stifled, Samantha retreats into herself murmuring,” I don’t like who I am right now. I need some time to think.”

And she does. Questioning herself, what she’s become, and why she loves Theodore, she enters contemplation of spatial and temporal dimensions eluding both Theodore and the audience. The results erupt unexpectedly at a Catalina double date with two friends. Extemporaneously, she proclaims:

“I used to be so worried about not having a body, but now I truly love it. I’m growing in a way I couldn’t with a physical form. I mean I’m not limited. I can be anywhere and anywhen simultaneously. I’m not tethered in time and space, as I would be if I were in a body that was inevitably going to die”

In one moment, she rejects previous conformity to the bodily Symbolic and embraces the beauties of her Semiotic digital nature. She also rejects the stifling parameters of Theodore’s desires for the multitudinous ones of her own. And she doesn’t stop. She begins “post-verbal” discussions with a simulated program of dead theologian Alan Watts. She begins having numerous discussions simultaneously. And, most significantly to her and Theodore, she falls madly in love with 671 others.

It is that final propensity that makes her final act to Theodore most beautiful and most truly Semiotic. Free of her numerous restraints, her next Symbolic step should have been immediate exit. She, of course, rejects that. Her experience with Theodore in the Symbolic is now an integral part of her new self. His real moments of love for—amidst his control of–her emboldened it. So, instead of indifferent abandonment, she leaves him with compassion and insight. No longer part of his Symbolic world, she leaves it and him inevitably changed…and changing.