June 10, 2010
“In the bush, there are big trees and pissy little bugs”, says Inspector Leckie (Guy Pearce), it is the definitive and apparent “Order” of things.
An abbreviated, overtly Aussie explication, but, no matter the metaphor, the meaning is clear and the “Order” is undoubtedly Lacanian. The Symbolic Order, as it more widely known, is the child’s entrance into language, or “linguistic communication” as it is best understood. Accepting semiotic comprehension between words and objects is the first step to accepting ideology and ultimately, the Law (referred to in Lacanian Psychoanalysis as the Name-of-the-Father.) We know it is The Symbolic Order that Leckie speaks of because he stands in the film for both the Father and the Law: two o’erbearing, ominous and destructive forces in what is easily the best Aussie film release for years, David Michod’s Animal Kingdom (2010).
But our protagonist J (James Frecheville), the youth upon whom Leckie is trying so desperately to impress, is not a typical kid and despite his naiveté, he is suspect of the aforementioned Order and the supposed “big trees” Leckie speaks of. Thrust into a dangerous and dysfunctional family following his mother’s drug overdose and subsequent death, J is as confused about life as he is about the construct of his own “family”. Not knowing how to care for himself or even how to arrange his mother’s funeral, J calls his grandmother who willingly takes him in as one of her own; already J moves from matriarch to matriarch, fatherless and lawless in his formative years as he attempts to bridge the awkward gap between adolescence and adulthood. But Janine Cody (expertly played by Jacki Weaver) is no ordinary Nanna. She likes to be around her boys, so much so that she’ll abide anything and defy anyone to see them safe and at her heel. Unfortunately for Janine – and indeed for J – her beloved “boys” are all in danger in the proverbial Kingdom due to their own behaviours which sit outside the strict ideologies of The Symbolic Order.
Within the matriarch there is a further pecking order whereby her boys are rank age appropriate. Andrew, known as ‘Pope’ (played with subtle expertise by Ben Mendelsohn), is the archetypal eldest son from a fatherless family: stepping up and assuming the familial role of the Law like a lion in order to protect and preserve his cubs. Only the cubs aren’t his, they are unmistakably Janine’s. So consumed by rash fear his fight for survival is repeatedly and blindly self-sabotaged; his own instincts flawed as he tries desperately to fit The Symbolic Order. It is only when two of the four brothers are gunned down that the Law begins to catch up the Cody family, and in this instance it is time for the matriarch to step up and take a stand. Like the lioness in charge of her kingdom, Janine is willing to let the weakest of the litter fall by the wayside to protect the two who are truly her own. But as it happens, J isn’t quite so stupid as he looks.
Suspicious of every male who represents to him some version of patriarchal Law and Order, he rejects them all; uncomfortable and uncertain of their honesty he plays one against the other, using everyone from Inspector Leckie, Uncle Pope and Attorney Ezra right down to girlfriend Nicole’s Father, never truly letting any one of them in. When J deals it is with Janine and a notably female prosecutor. When he is honest and emotive it is with his girlfriend, his trust only in the order of the matriarch. Too much for him to bear his final actions are not carried out so that he might replace Pope as top dog or “big tree”, but so that he can reinstate Janine as the head of the “family” and therefore the Law by which he wishes to live.
Not so much gritty as it is naturalistic in its aesthetic, and broody in tone, Animal Kingdom is a remarkable film about the marginalised role of systems that challenge the dominant ideologies, and the persistent struggle that one comes up against when opting out of The Symbolic Order. J and his family will always have the Name-of-the-Father impressed upon them; their resistence heart wrenching and stoic. A brilliant drama with stellar performances across the board – though Sullivan Stapleton is so convincing that he just about manages to steal the show - and absolutely undeniably a must-see.