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Animal Kingdom

The Curate’s Egg


Animal Kingdom, about a family of heist robbers, is a good example of a film that relies chiefly on the quality of its acting and the strength of its ambiguities, whilst also being hampered by the convolutions and contrivances of its plot, leading not to the ambiguous but the vague. Awarded at Sundance, well-received by numerous critics including Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian, David Michod’s first feature can be seen as a great actor’s film but a less interesting director’s work. Now obviously the elements of a film aren’t easily separated, and one often feels watching a movie a curious holistic integration for better or for worse: not quite how the direction integrates performance, lighting and music; or how the performances disintegrate next to the meretriciousness of the camerawork, how the story creates implausible characterisation. But if we look more closely we can often see how an aspect of the film is augmenting or damaging another element.

A brilliant instance of augmentation comes in Ingmar Bergman’s The Passion of Anna. Fine performances are brought out all the more by Bergman’s shot choice at a meal where the four leading characters share their thoughts. The director could have offered a camera that concentrates in medium shot on the four actors as they talk, perhaps dollying round the table as the camera shows both the person talking and those listening. Or he could have offered a shot/counter shot style that cuts from the person talking to another character interjecting. Instead Bergman holds on the face of the person talking even when someone interrupts. As each character explains how they feel about life, work, religion, so Bergman offers a tight close-up that creates an enclosed, slightly threatened space, where the characters seem to be defending themselves all the more strongly from the interjections of others by virtue of Bergman refusing the cutaway to the person interrupting. The actors very much perform well the self-justificatory moment they are given by Bergman’s script, but the direction hems them in so that the self-expression becomes even more self-oriented.

An example of dilution would be Chen Kiege’s Killing Me Softly, where Joseph Fiennes’ character explains to new lover Heather Graham how during a mountaineering expedition he lost his lover. Though the film is very much predicated on Fiennes’ mystery, the film moves into slow motion flashback as he explains what went wrong, and the music cues the audience’s pity. Maybe the film would have been better concentrating on Graham’s face as Fiennes talks, allowing her to register how she feels about a man telling her he lost the woman he loved. The way it is filmed, Graham is allowed reactions, but no reflection within the reaction as the film, instead of cutting back to her and holding on her face, goes into flashback. It would be unfair to say that Graham gives a bad performance, even to say that she is only  badly directed – which would indicate how she moves through screen space in the hands of the director. It is bigger than this: the film is directed, edited and scored to reduce her performance to cliché. Shortly afterwards, after she goes home to her partner, after she tells him that she has met someone, he knocks over the flowers on the table and Chen gives us a close up of the flowers on the floor. Instead of concentrating on Graham’s face, he again focuses on something else and dilutes the potential texture of the performance in directorial histrionics and obviousness.

Animal Kingdom is interesting because it doesn’t at all destroy the performances. Nobody is likely to say that the acting is laughable as they might of Graham and Fiennes’s, but it isn’t quite augmentative either. There is a disjunction here between the performances and the direction, as if the actors are in a naturalistic piece of cinema; yet the director is offering a more stylised work than the actors require, evident in the numerous rack focuses and the slow-mo imagery. It is in such moments that Michod doesn’t quite trust his cast, while it is more that the cast shouldn’t quite trust their director. This isn’t at all to say the film is badly directed; more that it doesn’t quite find a directorial equivalent to the fine acting elicited.

Just as we have talked of augmentative and diluted directing in relation to acting, we might also think of a correlative performance, and this is where Michelangelo Antonioni and Bergman are very different, and why Bergman could claim Antonioni was never any good with actors. “He never comes in contact with actors. They don’t know what he wants, and he doesn’t know how to talk to them.” (Interviews with Ingmar Bergman) But where Bergman wants usually to augment performance through direction, Antonioni wants to create correlations; a form of direction that contains the performance within the frame so that the acting cannot readily be understood outside this framing. When Monica Vitti walks in the Rome night in The Eclipse, or Thomas wanders around the park in London in Blow-Up, Antonioni is more interested in the configuration of the body in framed space, than the freedom of that body which happens to be unavoidably framed. Antonioni’s perspective to cinema and acting is antithetical to Ken Loach’s claim that if he could film without a camera he would.

In this sense Loach facilitates the performance. Where Bergman augments it with specific form without at all destroying the immediacy of the performance, while Chen dilutes the performance with clumsy cliché, and Antonioni correlates the performance through using actors more like artist’s models than agents of their own narrative destiny, Loach is one of cinema’s great facilitators: often using a long lens so that the actors can act with each other as he avoids shot/counter shot and wide-angled lenses. As he says “I suppose I admired the Czech films of the time, which I much prefer to the French new wave, because they seemed to have an interest and a space for people.” He increasingly looked for this facilitation, he says in the book My First Movie, wondering, “now technically how did they do that”?

One offers the above distinctions to try and understand the limitations of Animal Kingdom, to say it would have been all the better facilitating the performances, but by occasionally trying to augment or correlate them, it comes close to diluting them, and this dilution needn’t only come through the slow-motion camerawork. It can come through every aspect of the filmmaking that seems to undermine the truth of the character, the sense of character integrity, and this is where we can explore the difference between vagueness and ambiguity. Now a good example of ambiguity comes when the mother of this gang of brothers asks the oldest, Pope, whether he has been taking his medication and we have no idea what he was on and why he was on it, but the film in a line has given us an entire history of mental health problems that we could see in his behaviour but we would not have known had a medical history. It is a prosaic line that in another film could have only been offered as an insult: could one imagine anyone in GoodFellas asking Joe Pesci the same question, or even Begbie in Trainspotting? It is a naturalist line, a casual comment that locates Pope as a humdrum human being and not an obviously filmic character, a typical cinematic villain. It is ambiguous because we don’t know what he ought to be taking the pills for specifically, and we don’t know when he stopped taking them if he presumably has. Equally ambiguous is the scene where Pope puts his nephew J’s girlfriend to bed while J lies asleep on the couch. Pope has just been watching Barry Manilow sing a sentimental love song, but it seems to key into some sorrow of his own that we are not privy to, and leads to a moment where he stands over the girl’s body as if ready to ravish her before the now awake J comes into the room. There is both ambiguity of feeling in relation to the song, and ambiguity of behaviour as J comes in before Pope does anything, so that we cannot know what he might have done.

In each instance the script gives space for complexity of character through ambiguity of meaning. It is partly why we use the term naturalistic: people have reasons that we are not always privy to, and we must judge them on the partial information they provide through the actions and facial gestures they offer. However, vagueness often comes from the schematic, and the film’s narrative convolutions in the last third of the film fall into this category, one thinks, rather than the naturalistic.

In the film’s conclusion J arrives back at the house he has been staying in after his mother’s heroin overdose at the beginning of the film. He’s been taken in by is grandmother who holds together the criminal fraternity of sons, and J’s uncles, but after his girlfriend’s heroin overdose and murder administered by Pope, and Pope’s clear desire to see him dead, he looked like he was going to testify against the family. Instead he compromises and takes some responsibility for his girlfriend’s death, it seems, but at the end of the film gets revenge when he kills Pope. Moments afterwards J goes into the kitchen and hugs his grandmother, a woman we know, though he doesn’t, who earlier wanted him dead when it looked like J was going to turn against the family. Where does she stand now? A scene when the brothers were in prison made it clear her sympathies were much more with Pope’s younger brother than Pope, but would she really side with J. over her son, and is this question vague in our mind or ambiguously presented to us? If an earlier scene had made it a little clearer that she had no great love for Pope but only for the other surviving brother, then the hug would have been clear rather than vague, but it seems to contain more residual meaning than the film knows quite what to do with. It is a problem where character ambiguity is in danger of giving way to narrative vagueness. When there is the comment about Pope’s medication, or when we wonder about Pope’s feelings as he watches the television, there is no narrative vagueness accompanying the character ambiguity. In the scene of the mother’s hug there is narrative vagueness surrounding the gesture, and this is where the schematic damages the naturalistic, leaving the actor stranded in narrative exigencies.

One can see here how the script dilutes the acting, makes the plausibility of the behaviour forcibly contained by the demands of the plot. Now in the moment at the end where the grandmother (Jacki Weaver) hugs J, it has the potential to be a great piece of acting, and there is nothing at all in the performance that undermines it. Weaver doesn’t act the scene so her character’s motives are at all apparent which would force her into overacting. She instead hugs J as she always does, as she often hugs other people in the film: she is well established as a character who offers affection with ease.

However, if a film has failed to create motivation beyond the scene, or if the filmmaker insists that the viewer gets the same information more than once, then the performance can be forced into thespian compromise: into offering more than the moment demands. This would happen if Weaver no longer hugs as she always does, but hugs with a murderous intent, or, if she were forced into expositional dialogue to explain why she would be acting differently: in the grand tradition of villainous speech acts. In each instance the acting is loaded with narrative information, narrative information that could have been placed elsewhere in the film so that the actor can avoid being obvious or over the top in the scene.

Now Michod doesn’t throw all this narrative information onto the grandmother in gesture and exposition, which allows Weaver’s performance to remain strong, but it does create problems for the character. Hence if the filmmaker hasn’t set up a scene illustrating inner motive out-with the scene, a scene that makes clear though she hugs J in the present there is a good chance she will kill him in the future, this leaves strength of performance but results in weakness of character; we haven’t been given the sort of information that would allow us to assume that though there is nothing in her body language and speech that indicates he might die, there is much in the narrative that suggests he will. Without this past information, or because the filmmaker wants to reiterate it, the acting can be diluted directly – by forcing the actor to over-convey, to put too much meaning into the performance in that given moment. In this sense, Michod doesn’t do this and proves a very fine director of actors: he lets them act the emotions of the scene without forcing the character into preceding and proceeding ones. But the more general mechanics don’t always serve the actors so well, because the film sometimes simply doesn’t possess scenes that provide enough context for motivated behaviour, and the actor’s characterisation is left a little stranded in the situation. Certainly we know that Weaver’s Janine wanted J dead when he looked like he was destroying the family, but since the situation has changed has the motivation changed also? That we don’t know, and we’re inclined to think of vagueness over ambiguity.

If this is true for the scene where the grandmother hugs J, it is no less so in the scene a minute before when J shoots Pope. We don’t know how much time has passed between the brothers getting off and J turning up at Janine’s door again. Has J been temporarily locked up himself; which we might assume when he says he has nowhere else to go, as if just released from prison, or has he come directly from the Police Protection programme? Is he only saying this so that he can come back to the house and kill Pope; if that is the case the hug he gives his grandmother afterwards indicates the opposite: that he is there to stay. Has he killed Pope because Pope clearly killed his girlfriend, a killing he might wonder whether the grandmother and the other brother countenanced? Or does he even see his girlfriend’s death as a murder at all? Pope gave her a hit of heroin and then suffocated her. Has this come out in the autopsy: that the heroin she received wasn’t enough to kill her so it was obvious that someone else did?

In this instance, Michod has provided enough of a context for us as viewers so that we know exactly how she died, and why J would be vengefully justified in killing Pope, but we don’t know whether J knows. This is an example of where the filmmaker dilutes the performance because the motive behind the action becomes vague even if the variables the film has given us makes the action justifiable: we may be sure as a viewer why vengeance is justified, but we are not so sure whether there is justification enough for the character. Obviously a director could then have J explaining why he killed Pope, but this would be like having Janine making clear that she will kill J when she has the chance. It would dilute the moment of the performance, which Michod expertly doesn’t do, but he nevertheless indirectly dilutes both performances by vagueness of motivation, rather than ambiguity of behaviour.

If Bergman is known to be a master director of actors, often working with the same people over and over again, including the four actors from The Passion of Anna, Erland Josephson, Liv Ullmann, Max von Sydow and Bibi Andersson, it is because he is also a great relational director, a brilliant filmmaker of hell being other people in Sartre’s formulation. Antonioni is not relational but figurational, so that each character is not colliding with other characters but aloof from them, as though finally their problems are not with other people but with the spaces they occupy, and out of this comes the problem with other people. Antonioni is often interested in creating wary spaces that his actors pass through: a Gaudi building in The Passenger, the stock exchange in The Eclipse, the park in Blow Up, as though the very spaces are dangerous.  More than most, Antonioni turns space into another character if we regard space rather than people as hell; to reformulate Sartre for the purposes of comprehending Antonioni. Both Bergman and Antonioni are masterful filmmakers, though antithetical – they take respectively the relational and figurational to the highest level. Bergman’s criticism of Antonioni would be absolutely valid for a filmmaker trying to augment performance, but proves irrelevant to a filmmaker correlating it with the screen space. From an actor’s point of view obviously Antonioni can be frustrating. Indeed Jack Nicholson, after working with the director on The Passenger, formulated an explanation for making sense of the director’s choices not unlike our own. “He doesn’t make dramatic constructions, he makes configurations.” The important thing he says is to not “mess the interior up, and so break up the interior part of your character…because he is looking for clarity in that area.” This doesn’t make the exterior symbolic, but it is reflective, as it alludes to the character’s inner environment, but doesn’t reveal it. Antonioni is a filmmaker who wants often to keep the motives behind behaviour embedded within the environment, the performance, and the use of off–screen space, so that much of the mystery in an Antonioni film lies in the multiplication of ambiguity, rather than in the revelation of narrative. Ambiguity is a way of retaining mystery without expected and often mechanical disclosure. Whether it is Anna’s disappearance early on in L’Avventura, or the off-screen death at the end of The Passenger, this has nothing to do with plot, but rather with character and form. In the first instance we remain wondering why Anna has disappeared; in the latter we cannot know exactly what happened to Locke in his room because the camera was elsewhere when the event took place. In each instance there is no vagueness; the questions we ask are ambiguously mysterious because of the correlative demands Antonioni puts on the performances.

However, the questions we find ourselves asking concerning J’s actions near the end of Animal Kingdom are problematically vague. The film doesn’t so much work with off-screen space – the sort of space that makes us wonder exactly what happened to Locke – but narrative holes. Now the former does not violate any principle of reasoning in its refusal to offer certain information: it offers a parti pris: in this instance a preconceived principle of absence. As Antonioni consistently partially frames the action, as he decides to show us a fight at one remove earlier in the film, and characters small within the frame next to certain buildings, including Gaudi’s in Barcelona, so the director prepares us for structuring absences, and thus earns his ending: it fits into the film’s spatial logic of undercutting the anthropocentric. This is what Pascal Bonitzer means when he says that since L’Avventura, “Antonioni’s great project has been the empty shot, the de-peopled shot”, evident most especially in The Eclipse and in The Passenger, where the failure of the couple to turn up to a designated destination in the former allows Antonioni to film the spaces they have earlier occupied and wonder about the reasons for their absence, and in the latter to muse over who might have killed Locke. It undercuts the anthropocentric visually, but allows the empathic to return as absent presence. Frequently in Antonioni’s films – in L’avventura, in the Eclipse, even the body in Blow-Up, Locke in The Passenger – we concern ourselves with the characters all the more by virtue of their absence. This is ambiguity as empathic possibility – in wondering what might have happened without knowing the reasons why something has happened. This is not what Animal Kingdom seems at all to be working with, so that the under-motivation given the variables J apparently has at his disposal – and we must assume they are only those made available to him by the scenes we witness him involved in – creates a motivational vagueness.

Perhaps we are offering too much digressive bolstering here: trying to explain the failings of one small film by looking conceptually at the brilliance of others. Animal Kingdom is however a compelling small-scale work, a film that gets a lot of things right, and is so astute to the immediacy of performance that we are surprised by its weaknesses. There are far worse films that nevertheless more obviously work. A good example of Animal Kingdom’s rudimentary errors is how the film introduces a peripheral character quite near the end. She is the brothers’ lawyer’s assistant and Michod introduces us to her in an establishing shot that feels especially curtailed given her presence in the proceeding scene. As she sexily sits and informs J. how he will perform in court, so she seems utterly self-assured in her job and in her sexuality, and it is especially surprising retrospectively that she was not given more of an introduction. It is almost as if she has outperformed her task: that the role she plays she plays so well that it was as though after the event the director could have done with more footage than he possessed. Whatever the reason, it is a brief role that is curiously unestablished; would another filmmaker have, by a reference earlier in the film, made clear that the lawyer had an impressive assistant, or in the establishing shot that introduces her, made more of this character? Yet this again would seem to be very different from Antonioni: where early in The Passenger we see a fleeting glimpse of someone who will later in Barcelona become a key character: Maria Schneider’s The Girl. Antonioni offers it as part of the film’s inexplicability; in Animal Kingdom it is the strength of the performance that seems to justify more explication than the character is given.

In an interview in New British Philosophy, Timothy Williamson talks about his book On Vagueness, and notes, “one attitude [concerning logic] has been that the sort of logic that they (analytic thinkers like Russell and Frege] were defining was applicable only to absolutely precise language, for mathematics and possibly the most abstract sort of science.” But he adds, “since just about all the concepts that we ordinarily use, not just in everyday life, but in empirical science, are vague, that leaves a vacuum for what the appropriate standards of reasoning are.” Yet certain films seem more obviously logical – what we might call ‘plot logical’ – while others search out different forms of reasoning; what certain thinker have called “hypothetical conjectural reasoning”, mentioned in an article by Umberto Eco called ‘The Crisis of the Crisis of Reason’. The plot logical is consistent with the syllogism, where if all cats are black, and Tibby is a cat, then Tibby must unavoidably be black. Within the principle of reasoning the statement sets up, there is no room to speculate on what colour Tibby may be. But Antonioni, like Kiarostami, like Godard, like younger filmmakers including Lisandro Alonso, Philippe Grandrieux and Carlos Reygadas, indeed some will say like many post-war filmmakers searching out the ambiguous, demand hypothetical conjectural reasoning as we cannot work out what is going on categorically, but must speculate on the information that we are provided with. When Antonioni eschews narrative certitude he creates speculative possibilities; he forces upon us conjectural thinking, not logical thinking.

Now often vagueness comes about through a logical imprecision that nevertheless demands precise thinking. This is exactly what we mean when we talk of faulty plot logic, or what Hitchcock has called the ‘ice box effect’. It is when a film makes an internal plot error that superficially isn’t apparent but becomes so when you get home, take a beer out of the ice box and suddenly it dawns on the person that an aspect of the story didn’t make any sense. One example would be The Bourne Identity where, as internet bloggers have noted, an assassin takes Bourne by surprise by entering through a window even though moments before we have seen him inside the building as he kills someone else: he kills them on his way to get Bourne. Why gratuitously enter the building and kill someone when your intention is to surprise Bourne by coming in through the window and from outside the building? Our reasoning faculties understandably demand that if the assassin’s purpose is to take out Jason Bourne he will do so in the most efficient way possible. Why enter the building, kill someone on the way to Jason’s room, and then exit the building to attack him through the window? This would make sense if there was a hitch in the plan; that there were too many people between the floor he was on and the room he is trying to reach, but as this isn’t the case it seems a flaw in the film’s reasoning. What our speculations offer aren’t interesting hypothetical conjecturing, where we are wondering about the assassin’s motives (he is an assassin; he has no motive beyond getting his man), but picking apart the film’s plot reasoning. This is unproductive vagueness; not productive ambiguity.

Now in such an instance as The Bourne Identity, the error allows for idle fault finding – it hardly impacts on the film’s narrative. In Memento the problems might seem more serious, and a more egregious example of Hitchcock’s ice box effect. As Slade magazine asks, if Leonard has short term memory loss, how does he remember certain details that would seem to disappear, how come he knows of the importance of a thick file on his wife’s rape, how does he remember his disagreement with the cops about the second rapist? At a certain point most people will end up saying it is only a movie, and we all have occasions where we accept the suspension of disbelief. But certain flaws in films playing on plot logic, but failing to abide by it, somehow diminish our grasp on reality; they play with our reasoning faculties as they arrive at a vagueness of reasoning whilst falling into the category of the logical. Memento is the sort of film that works syllogistically: if Leonard has lost his short term memory, then everybody can play him in relation to the memory he can no longer rely upon. Any failure to abide by this self-imposed law proves faulty reasoning, and Slade offers up several examples of this failure.

One of the key questions we have been asking in relation to Animal Kingdom is to what degree the film relies upon plot logic; to what degree hypothetical conjectural reasoning. We have agreed that it is not at all important to know what drugs Pope takes, what psychological condition he has, and whether he is presently taking them. But if the film were later to have offered an overdose of this very drug to kill J’s girlfriend, we might want to know what the drug is and what sort of quantity would be required to kill her. We would have moved from the speculative to the logical, from a cause that can remain vague as we realise much of Pope’s behaviour is based on a certain chemical imbalance, to the effect of utilising the drug to kill another character. That it has a cause but no categorical effect, means we do not need to know what the drug is, and how lethal it could prove to be. The ambiguous doesn’t lead to the vague, as the film does not expect the ambiguous piece of information to have a cause that leads to categorical narrative impact.

However,   a scene where the cops come to kill J while he is in a police protection programme, after he wants to expose the family, has problems with cause and effect and cannot claim for itself ambiguity. It falls instead into the category of vagueness. Here we have to fill in the dots as we wonder why the officers on the self protection programme looking after J Suddenly scarper. Now we know from earlier scenes that Janine has said she wants J taken care off, and we know also that over the years that the cop she talks to has received a few favours from the family, but the vagueness comes from us making certain assumptions that seem improbable. The impression given is that this small family is so powerful that they can influence a key figure in the police force, who can in turn influence the regular cops to shoot on sight a protected witness who has committed no murders and wants to expose the family who have been responsible for killing other police officers, and the police protection officers would flee for fear of their own lives when the cops come looking for J. This isn’t to say it is impossible that this could happen – and Animal Kingdom does base itself loosely on fact – but the cause and effect chain is too weak not to arrive at vagueness of motive at various stages in the sequence.

Film is, as Susan Sontag and others have pointed out, a sensuous medium: it is a great art form of persuasion. By utilising performance, music, camerawork and editing, the film can convince us of its verisimilitude without always making us aware of how unconvincing is its argument. It is in this sense often a rhetorical as opposed to logical form, taking into account the Ancients’ use of the term where one uses “language for the art of persuasion”. Logic is not persuasive; it is categorical. A mathematical formula is not persuasive initself; only in its application: would there be a better mathematical formula to solve a problem in the world? Yet art is more obviously persuasive, and cinema perhaps the most persuasive art of all – the most rhetorical art as it combines manifold elements to achieve its effects. Of course we are not asking of film that it achieves the logical precision of a mathematical equation:  a film is not right or wrong. But certain films are much closer to mathematics than others; much closer to categorical reasoning procedures rather than hypothetical, speculative ones. All we have tried to look at here is how Animal Kingdom, in belonging generally to the former camp more than to the latter, closer to the demands of plot logic than character inexplicability, often falls into the vague and not the ambiguous. It does so, however, while at the same time offering performances that are naturalistic rather than schematic. The film is in that old journalistic cliché a curate’s egg, with the acting parts greater than its narrative sum. But it is often useful to crack open the egg and see its component elements.


©Tony McKibbin