Australia, 2010, 112 minutes, Colour.
Ben Mendelsohn, James Frecheville, Guy Pearce, Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford, Jackie Weaver, Sullivan Stapleton, Anthony Hayes, Laura Wheelwright, Clayton Jacobsen.
Directed by David Michod.
Towards the end of this fine drama about Melbourne crooks (they are too local and low-key to really be called gangsters), the sympathetic detective played by Guy Pearce gives the 17 year old J (for Joshua) Cody a lecture about the animal kingdom, about who is strong and who is weak, who protects the weak, and whether they are as strong as they think they are. At the beginning, J’s voiceover tells us that his criminal family are always afraid whether they realise it or not and that their collapse seems inevitable.
So, that is what the film is about – although it is more complex than that, especially in the family relationships rather than in the crimes committed.
This is a particularly well-written drama and very well acted, a satisfying look at the underside of human nature.
We are introduced to J (newcomer James Frecheville who invests his character with an overt passivity that covers a teenager forced to face dire realities before his time trying to work out where he stands in life in relationship to his family and in relationship to moral evil and good). When his mother dies of an overdose he contacts his grandmother (Jacki Weaver in one of her best roles, the matriarch of a suburban crime family who can sound like sweetness and light and motherly love but who is as ruthless as they come). Three of his uncles are bank robbers, one a drug dealer. They take it for granted that they have to initiate him into their world and its codes. When one of their associates (Joel Edgerton) is set up by police and shot, the brothers retaliate against the police. Their leader, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn showing a deadly control over the family and, off his medication, ruthless and merciless) controls his youngest brother, Darren (Luke Ford) while the drug dealer, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton embodying a believably crazed but dim dealer) goes out on his own.
J observes all this, learns what power can be as Craig forces him to threaten some too-smart drivers at gunpoint, tries to relate to, then protect, his high school girlfriend, and deal with the interrogations and continued advice from the detectives and the pressure from his uncles.
David Michod has said that this is fiction, though many Melburnians will recognise plot elements from cases of criminals and police from the past. However, these goings on, evil as they are shown to be, are small compared with many of the gangster stories from Melbourne’s recent past and the police corruption and murders in the criminal families.
The film is not exploitative at all in its brief scenes of violence but, with the help of its excellent cast whose performances indicate characters with small detailed nuances, opts for dramatic interaction over conventional gangster conventions.
1. Acclaim for the film? Reviews and festivals?
2. A sombre piece of Australiana? Melbourne focus?
3. The Melbourne settings, ordinary suburbia, ordinary houses in the street, the police headquarters, the countryside and farms? Realism? The low-key and restrained visual style? Musical score?
4. The title, Leckie and his explanation to J? The family as an animal kingdom? The world of crime? Survival of the fittest? Protection? Mistakes? Deaths?
5. The story as seen through the eyes of J., the audience observing him, his place, his finding his place in the family, its ethos, influence, temptations? His use of principle, decisions and morality?
6. The opening with J. and his mother dying, the overdose, his phone call, glancing at the TV, the ambulance, the introduction to J? A teenager, impassive in his behaviour? An introvert, introspective?
7. Janine Cody, J's phone call to her, her invitation for him to come, her attitude of disdain towards her dead daughter, the distance in the family? J's arrival, the welcome, settling in, his room? The meeting with the uncles and with Barry Brown? Meals? Barry and his wife? J. listening in?
8. Janine and her domination, her character, outwardly polite, some charm, yet control, her love for her boys, the passionate kisses? Encouraging them? Amoral? Her attitudes towards the police? Change of attitude towards J? The murders and the influence on her behaviour? Pope and his pills? Craig as wild? Darren as the baby?
9. Craig and J. in the car, the drivers taunting, Craig giving J. the gun, his holding them up, experience of power, possibilities? Pope and his getting J. to steal the car?
10. Barry, his family, wife and child, the past and robbing banks, the change, not wanting to go into drug-dealing, interested in stocks and shares, making money? His going to the car, the police shooting him, declaring he had a gun?
11. Pope and the set-up, the stealing of the car, the information, the police arriving, their being shot dead?
12. The police, their investigations, J. and his being interrogated? His reactions? The personality of Leckie, motives, methods, concern for J? J. and his silence? The presence of the lawyer?
13. The lawyer, corrupt connections, the connection with Janine? His experience with J., with the boys, the court case, the boys getting off?
14. The corrupt policeman, paying him, the drugs and supply, the dealings? Giving the information about the police and Barry and Pope, the warnings? The later encounter with Janine, her threatening him, the police raid on J's witness protection house, the attempt to kill J., J. and his escape?
15. Craig, the wild brother, exuberant behaviour, drug-dealing, making money, going to the countryside, the couple, the police, his death?
16. Pope as neurotic, erratic behaviour, the bond with his mother, with J., with the other brothers? The role of the lawyer? J. and interrogations? Pope and Darren being arrested, in jail, their mother’s visit, the lawyer, the threats, the plans, J. and the court case, his testimony? The brothers getting out? Pope and his encounter with Nicky, giving her the drugs, killing her, getting rid of the body? Janine condoning it? His smugness, J. and his visit, J. killing him?
17. Darren as a follower, sharing with the other brothers, his concern about J., his mother’s visit in jail, his treatment and his being oppressed, J. and the warning about Nicky?
18. Nicky’s family, J. going to stay with them, with Nicky at school, the girlfriend, staying over, the mother and her trying to be understanding and tolerant, the prickly relationship with her daughter? Her father? J. and his escape from the raid, after being in the witness protection? His being driven by Nicky’s father? Nicky’s death, the effect on him, Nicky and her character, playing with the drugs? Her corpse? Her parents and their grief? J. and his trying to warn her, breaking off with her and her being hurt?
19. J., the witness protection, the escape, his final decisions, hiding, the death of Nicky, the interrogations by Leckie? His killing Pope?
20. The initial information about the criminals, being foolish, the dangers, risks, deaths?
21. The film as effective as a family drama, as a crime thriller?