Friday, March 18, 2011

Australian crime wave

Back in the 70s, Australian cinema emerged from a swamp of exploitation and earned a place in the international film community with films of serious artistic aspiration and merit, such as Picnic at Hanging Rock, Walkabout and Breaker Morant. Fine films they were, but not necessarily to be considered entertainment by the mainstream audience. It takes a confident culture to mingle fun and art, and Australia is clearly confident now, if the work of the loose association of filmmakers called Blue Tongue is any indicator. Members include Nash and Joey Edgerton, David Michod and Kieran Darcy-Smith, and although not formally united by any specific artistic credo, other than to make the kind of films they themselves would like to see, the collective result is a worldview as black as the blackest film noir of the 40s and 50s, spiced with a sexual honesty not possible at the time.

For our convenient study, they have made some short films that state their artistic ethos with a clarity and a concision that is admirable. Nash Edgerton, who brings one of the most unusual resumes to directing in film history, having previously established himself primarily as a stunt person and stunt coordinator (including work for the Matrix, Star Wars and Superman franchises), is the auteur of this nasty bit of business called Spider. Pay close attention to the epigram which begins the film:

The Square (2008) was Mr. Edgerton's feature debut, and it is built on the classic noir trope of the good man who needs to cover up an isolated bad act (specifically adultery) and gets sucked farther and farther down into a morass of evil. It might be described as the "circling the drain" structure. Here is the moment in the protagonist's story from which there is no turning back. This is the place where "someone loses an eye." The man in the first car is a friend of the protagonist has seen proof of his evil and is racing to escape.

I'm not sure how it's done, perhaps it's the murky weather throughout, but the whole film carries a brooding sense of worse things to come, that should install it as next classic neo-noir after Brick.

David Michod places his world of evil in the bright sunshine with a cheerful granny making birthday cakes and giving orders to the criminal gang she heads up. No need to look outside the family to find danger and death. Be advised that this short film below, Crossbow, which illustrates how treacherous family is in "Mondo Michod" is NSFW, for reasons of language.

Animal Kingdom
has been compared to Goodfellas, and they do share both an acceptance of the routine nature of most crime and a universe of betrayal and treachery, especially among those who claim to love each other. But Animal Kingdom is even better compared to Winter's Bone, in which an innocent 17-year-old is brought into knowledge of her own family's criminal undertakings. And in both cases, the performances of the neophyte actors, Jennifer Lawrence and James Frecheville, are stunning. And while Lawrence received an Oscar nomination, the Academy nomination for Animal Kingdom went to the actress playing that sweet loveable granny (nicknamed "Smurf"), Jackie Weaver, who we see in this clip ordering a hit on her adored grandson, who she fears is planning to betray the family to the police:

Even Barbara Stanwyck didn't put the Indian sign on her own grandson.

Both Blue Tongue films share a minimalistic aesthetic, but whereas The Square has a jittery hand-held look, the camera in Animal Kingdom is mostly locked down, classical style, lending an air of authority and reliability to the authorial style. Both Edgerton and Michod display complete command and seem likely poised for greater achievements.

I can't wait to see what kind of mayhem the Ozzies cook up next.

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