One might not expect the name of John Calvin to come up in an interview about a crime film, but during a Dallas stopover to promote “Animal Kingdom,” Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn described his character—a particularly nasty member of a Melbourne family of robbers—in terms of the Protestant thinker. Mendelsohn described “Pope” Cody, the man he plays, as “a demonically driven person. I would venture to say you’d have to travel far and wide to find a more thoroughly corrupted individual.” The character, he added, reminded him of “John Calvin’s ideas about the total depravity of man. If that kind of thing exists, then these”—“Pope” and the rest of his family—“are the damned.”
“Animal Kingdom” is the first feature of writer-director David Michod, who built the tale of the Cody clan around an actual occurrence—the random killing of two policemen in the Australian city. “The central event—the slaying of the two policemen…took place in the mid to late eighties,” Mendelsohn explained.
Michod used it to construct the tale of the Cody family—matriarch “Smurf” (Jackie Weaver) and sons “Pope,” “Baz” (Joel Edgerton), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford)—as seen through the eyes of a newcomer, the woman’s grandson James, or “J” (James Frecheville), whom she takes in when his mother dies of a heroin overdose. After “Baz” is killed by some rogue cops–“There was a time when their idea of being proactive was just that—go out and hit this or that one,” Mendelsohn explained—“Pope” orchestrates the retaliation killing of the two policemen and involves “J” in it. That gives an honest sergeant played by Guy Pearce the idea of turning the boy against the clan and giving evidence against them. But “Smurf” has other ideas.
Michod described how the plot emerged from the real-life events as “the culmination of a long-running battle between hardened crews of robbers and the old-school, hard-core armed robbery squad—the cold-blooded, random murder of a couple of cops by one of them.” He added that in the actual case, “everyone knew who did it, but the people who were accused and charged and tried were acquitted.”
Mendelsohn noted, “There’s a couple of clans that have had a protracted kind of turf influence, petty payback wars. About thirty-five people have been killed over several years.” He added of the Codys, “These are not high-functioning people. And some of the people who might be considered templates for this family, they’re not doing very well, either.”
But Michod was not interested in making a docudrama. “There have been a number of famous or infamous Melbourne criminal families,” he said. “And mothers appearing outside courtrooms where their children have been charged with something or other, and dressing for the occasion—treating it like a catwalk, in away. So there are certain traits I was able to draw on. But I wanted to build the characters from the ground up.” What was the basis for his invention? “In many respects that was just my observation of families that at the outset appear very tight-knit and warm and intimate, but the more closely I observed them, the more unhealthy they became. I liked the idea of creating a family that was very tight-knit, but quite toxic and moving in a very dangerously marginal world,” he said.
As for the character of “J,” Michod observed that he wrote the boy as someone not unacquainted with the darker side, but still finding his way. “I didn’t want it to be as hackneyed as it would have been if he were completely naïve,” he explained. One of the major elements of J’s story is his relationship with his girlfriend and her family, which serves as a contrast to the Codys. “I had the idea that he was looking for a safe place, somewhere, without necessarily realizing himself that was what he was doing,” Michod said. “I wanted James’s girlfriend and her family to represent that for him.”
Michod was enthusiastic over what newcomer Frechette brought to the role of J. “I gambled,” he said. “But it’s not until you get on the set the first day that you know what the work is going to be like.”
And Frechette is surrounded by a large cast of Australia’s best actors. “It was so rewarding for me to have all of these great people want to come on board and be a part of this,” Michod enthused. “It was really great sign for me, that there was something about the material that people were responding to—that great actors wanted to be involved with it, even for one or two scenes.” He and Mendelsohn both mentioned Weaver, whom Michod described as “a national treasure with a long and illustrious career.”
Michod and Mendelsohn added that the locale is a character in the film, too. “Melbourne has a long and rich history of true-crime writing as well as criminal activity,” Mendelsohn said. “There’s something about the city that’s quite dark and noirish, unlike the sunny, tropical, outback kangaroo image of the rest of Australia. It gets very cold in winter and brutally hot in summer.” He added that in many respect it could be compared to San Francisco: “And it’s a gold rush town—that’s where it starts.”
Michod drew a different comparison, to an American city with powerful crime connotations. “A couple of weeks ago when I was doing press in Chicago, when I was driving in from the airport I thought, this feels like a slightly bigger Melbourne,” he said. “ [Melbourne] feels like a mini-Chicago somehow.”
The presence of Joel Edgerton in the cast of “Animal Kingdom” also brought up the subject of the group of young Australian filmmakers including Michod, Joel and his brother Nash (“The Square”) who are often seen as working closely together. “We’re kind of just a bunch of friends who work as individuals but like having a group of friends around to sound-board,” Michod said. “It isn’t as though there’s a master-control room where the stuff is germinated. It’s us doing our own thing and then actively seeking the involvement of the others when the time times. I think if we tried to formalize the structure and make it some kind of coherent production force it would completely snap.”
If “Animal Kingdom” is any indication, the process works just fine as it is.