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.