June 2010

Arts & Letters

My three sons

By Luke Davies

David Michôd’s 'Animal Kingdom' and Banksy’s 'Exit Through the Gift Shop'

First-time director David Michôd, whose Animal Kingdom is one of the best Australian films in years, served notice in 2007 that something was in the offing with his short film Crossbow. In that film, a sensitive teenage boy, bewildered by the lives of the grown-ups around him – his sexy, fading beauty of a mother, her semi-gangster boyfriend and the ne’er-do-wells who populate their bong-smoke-filled outer-suburban house – withdraws into his shell as his emotions reach boiling-point. In 14 minutes, the film imagined an entire world, creating a sense of a wayward adolescence that was both believable and moving.

In Animal Kingdom (released nationally on 3 June), Michôd revisits some Crossbow territory to create a tour de force of brooding menace. The film is a beautifully modulated Melbourne crime-thriller about power and allegiance, survival and betrayal, crooked cops and psychotic crooks, and a boy’s journey through the morass. If this sounds like the television series Underbelly, fear not; Animal Kingdom suffers from none of the tired tropes and lazy clichés that make Underbelly so substandard.

We meet a bored Josh, or J (James Frecheville), sitting on the couch beside his mother, watching Deal or No Deal on TV. He’s a tall, hulking boy in his school uniform, and he’s still wearing one pink dish-washing glove. There’s just one small problem: his mother is dead, from a heroin overdose. Not knowing what to do after the ambulance officers and police have come and gone, J calls Grandma Smurf (Jacki Weaver), who has been long estranged from his mother.

Even though he’s only 17, J is no angel: for instance, we learn part-way through the film that he’s “good with cars”, that is, stealing them. The family into which the dysfunctional matriarch Smurf welcomes him is dark, and J’s ability to steal cars will come to seem as innocent as a child’s hobby.

Barry (Joel Edgerton), the only central player who is not a blood relation of the rest of the crooks, is a professional bank robber, and the kind of level-headed, no-nonsense rough diamond who makes those around him feel safe and protected. He (all ego, all sanguineness) thinks he’s certainly a match for the armed robbery squad; they’d like to disagree. Neither will it be much help in containing the extravagant idiosyncrasies of Smurf’s three mad sons.

Craig Cody (Sullivan Stapleton), in cahoots with a corrupt drug-squad officer, supplements his bank-robbery income with large-scale drug-dealing. Completely wired on his own speed, he’s dangerous, volatile and unhinged. Younger brother Darren Cody (Luke Ford), by contrast, is a quiet brooder who looks dismayed and bewildered by the life he finds himself leading. But, it is the older brother Andrew ‘Pope’ Cody (Ben Mendelsohn) to whom the film belongs. Pope has the focus of Barry, but his is the focus of a sociopath. He has the stillness of Darren, but his is the stillness of pure menace. He has the fury of Craig, but his is turned inwards – venomous and waiting. Delivering a deeply nuanced portrayal of passive–aggressive intimidation and threat, Mendelsohn has never been more convincingly frightening. He has a long history of pivotal roles in Australian films, and Pope is one of his greatest yet. It’s certainly a very long way from his young, shy Danny Clark in Nadia Tass’s The Big Steal (1990).

Guy Pearce plays Detective Leckie, who is on a mission to end the Cody brothers’ reign. J’s arrival in the mix is the moment Leckie has been waiting for: the chance to drive a wedge between the brothers. J is made complicit in a terrible incident of revenge the brothers enact on the police – there are echoes in the film of Melbourne’s Walsh Street murders – and winds up trapped between the nightmare world of his uncles and the nefarious machinations of the police force, for whom he is a disposable pawn. Leckie, in a brilliantly understated performance by Pearce, is as close to a father-figure as J has ever had.

At a certain point J realises that his situation in the Cody household is untenable. Almost simultaneously, he also realises that he cannot throw his lot in with the police. The beasts of both jungles will devour him; both factions are, literally, out to kill him. The film, which is always striking, now becomes exhilarating, with J raw, stripped of all possibility of help and hope. In this sense, it’s very much a coming-of-age tale. Michôd, who also wrote the screenplay, deftly makes J’s peril extreme. He has to outwit everyone; the great pleasure in the film is in following the unexpected way he tries to do that.

Animal Kingdom is well cast, down to the smallest roles. Jacki Weaver as Smurf is the grandmother from hell, a brilliant dramatic creation. She infantilises her bank-robber children, kissing them on the lips for a moment too long. Being “among the boys” seems to be her motivation, far more than being concerned for their welfare. The greater the chaos around her, the greater her sense of purpose. Deeply complex, she’s a great villain: the type of character the makers of Underbelly clearly wanted to create, but couldn’t get a handle on.

Frecheville’s J is complex, too, alternating between numbness and panic as he sheds his innocence. Pearce’s Leckie is the most humane character in the film, though his quiet warmth is cut through with steely opportunism. But Mendelsohn’s Pope is in a different league. He is so riveting that in the screening I saw, there were palpable gasps from the audience when he carried J’s sleeping girlfriend, Nicky (Laura Wheelwright), into J’s bedroom, even though it’s only to tuck her in. Later, alongside Darren in a prison visiting-booth, and with Smurf on the other side of the plexiglas, Pope manages to make even the simple line “Speak to Mum, you fuckin’ sook” funny, but also dark and unsettling.

In the film’s brilliant opening credits, Michôd zooms slowly into grainy black-and-white surveillance footage of masked men robbing a bank. His stroke of genius, after that framing moment, is to never actually venture into the wham-bam world in which the brothers make their living. Instead, the convention is inverted, and we’re thrust into their domestic home life – insofar as it is domestic, and insofar as it is a life. Michôd’s ability to both understate and tightly control the story of the family’s undoing makes for a gripping spectacle. Animal Kingdom is a superior film rather than just a superior crime film.

Exit Through the Gift Shop, the first film by the notorious British street artist who goes by the name of Banksy, is rollicking fun. And this despite – or, perhaps, partly because of – the controversy surrounding the question of how much of it is straight documentary and how much mischievous hoax. “The film’s the story of what happened when this guy tried to make a documentary about me,” Banksy says to camera, “but he was a lot more interesting than I am, so now the film is kind of about him.”

Well, yes and no. In keeping with Banksy’s elusive modus operandi, it is in fact very much a documentary “about”, and certainly controlled by, the artist, even though he doesn’t appear in all that much of it and when he does, he’s shadow-faced and voice-distorted, as if in a witness-protection program. Call it, rather, a film about Banksy via the story of “this guy”: the quirky Los Angeles-based Frenchman Thierry Guetta. Guetta sees Banksy as a kind of art-world Robin Hood, stealing public space from the powers that be and giving to the great unwashed the psychic blessings of vibrant art. Or, at least, the film shows Guetta seeing Banksy that way.

Guetta, who ran a vintage clothing shop in Los Angeles, was not so much interested in amateur video-making as compulsively filming everything that moved. There was no rhyme or reason to this, just box after box of tapes that he never watched: “When it was filmed, for me it was done.” One day, while on holiday in France, he filmed his cousin Space Invader, a guerilla artist at the forefront of the burgeoning ‘street art’ movement, which had its distant origins in the New York subway graffiti movements of the ’70s and ’80s. Street art seemed to be moving beyond the repetitive puerility of graffiti tagging; its practitioners, at their best, placed works of striking beauty in hidden corners and public places. There was a sense of purity in the way their endeavours seemed divorced from any system of commercial transaction.

Street art can have a short life span, so it needs documenting, and Guetta, according to the documentary, became its self-appointed crusader. Through the street artist Shepard Fairey (best known for his 2008 Barack Obama ‘Hope’ poster), Guetta eventually located Banksy, whom he considered to be “the one missing star” of his planned documentary. As their friendship grew, Guetta essentially became the visual archivist of Banksy’s increasingly international career. Then, like the student wanting to outstrip the master, he decided – with Banksy’s initial blessing, according to Banksy – to reinvent himself as an artist. Exit Through the Gift Shop shows us this comical, if disturbing, process. It shows also how Guetta, an oddly likeable guy at first, becomes a little less likeable as he becomes an art hustler.

It’s not that the hustle itself is painful, it’s that Guetta’s art is so mediocre. Firstly, there’s the documentary, Life Remote Control, that he finally gets together. We see a snippet of it in Exit: a jumble of frenetic editing with a jagged aesthetic that might best be described as MTV-meets-crystal-meth; it looks to be, and Banksy assures us it is, “pretty unwatchable”. “It was at that point I realised,” says Banksy, “that maybe Thierry wasn’t a film-maker. Maybe he was just someone with mental problems who happened to have a camera.” Secondly, there’s Guetta’s exhibition, and here, while he shows his artistic paucity, he certainly springs to life as a marketing genius. Now calling himself “Mr Brainwash”, Guetta, the documentary claims, sells $1 million of the rather unimaginative, Warholesque pieces in the exhibition’s first week.

Is it cinema vérité or some form of near-mockumentary manipulation? We see the production line of the art: Guetta earmarks images for appropriation by filling coffee-table art books with Post-it notes. We see the crowds queuing around the block. For all its jolly air of “can you believe he pulled this off?”, this section of the film feels like a depressing testament to the gullibility of Los Angeles hipster-fashionistas and to the capacity of the art world to both create and buy into hype. “Warhol repeated famous icons until they became meaningless,” says Banksy from his den of shadows. “But Thierry … really made them meaningless.” There’s no apparent animosity in all this, though Banksy seems as surprised as anyone by Guetta’s success. “It never was about the money,” he says of his own work and, indeed, a visit to the ‘Shop’ page of his website seems to bear this out.

There’s nothing to actually buy there, merely a disclaimer, some free JPEGs, and a photo of a gift shop that seems to have appropriated his images en masse. That such appropriation even exists – Banksy coffee mugs, anyone? – is a testament to his ever-growing status in popular culture. When you look at the history of his work, you get the sense he’s earned his status. “Most artists spend years perfecting their craft, finding their style,” he says, with what sounds, though voice-distorted, like affectionate bemusement. “Thierry seems to have missed out on most of that.”

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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