The Town, Animal Kingdom: Crime Runs in the Family

by February 17, 2011 at 10:45 am 2,341 0

Mary Burgan Borderstan Movie Fan

Mary Burgan is the Borderstan Movie Fan.

From Mary Burgan.

There are two unexpected nominations in the Best Supporting Actor and Actress categories in this year’s list of Oscar-nominated actors.

One is for the role of a hothead foster brother to the hero in The Town — Ben Affleck’s film about a crime family in Boston’s Charlestown. The other is for the role of the sentimental matriarch in Animal Kingdom, a film by the new Australian film-maker, David Michôd, about a crime family in Melbourne.

Each offers some ripe roles for actors, but although both make occasional stabs at probing the sources of familial pathology, neither seems very interested in getting beneath the violence of the crime movie genre.

I don’t want to deny any hard-working actor his or her due, and the supporting actors nominated from each film do their jobs very well. However, I am not sure why  Jeremy Renner of The Town or Jacki Weaver of Animal Kingdom should be singled out just for doing their bits in two movies that are so seriously flawed.

In The Town, I suspect the nod to Renner might serve two purposes. One is to recognize Ben Affleck for directing Gone, Baby, Gone a couple of years ago as well as for directing and starring in The Town. He is an up-and-coming director, and I think he’s a pretty good actor as well. As a matter of fact, his portrayal of the hero in The Town seems more artful to me than Renner’s rendition of the hero’s adopted brother.

The other source for Renner’s nomination may have been his excellent performance in last year’s The Hurt Locker. In The Town, he gets to play at an opposite end of the emotional spectrum from the role he played as The Hurt Locker’ s bomb expert — a man who had so suppressed his ability to live a life without danger that he couldn’t go home again. That movie concluded with his signing up for another tour.

The acting skill in The Hurt Locker lies in Renner’s stillness. In The Town, he comes close to over-playing as the trigger-happy bank robber, impatient for the pay-off he feels he has earned for protecting his “brother.”

There are trigger-happy family members in Animal Kingdom as well, especially a psychotic brother whose mother suggests, delicately, that perhaps he should go back to taking his pills. In nominating Weaver for her performance as that mother, the Oscar committee may have been trying to repair its failure to acknowledge many films from outside Hollywood or its comfortable Anglo-American orbit this year.

Animal Kingdom has the earmark of improvisation on a theme from Good Fellas (1990) and so seems a little too enchanted with American crime dramas for my taste. In The Godfather (1972), the murder of all the Corleone enemies cross-cuts with the richly signifying enactment of a family Baptism. Not so with the violence in Animal Kingdom. The film features scenes in which bad things happen to people who can barely be bothered to stop watching a television talk show to register them.

That lack of signification may be Michôd’s point. He emphasizes it by creating in “Smurf” — the morally purblind mother of the Cody family — an entirely new crime figure. In films about the American Mafia, mothers tend to be in the background, saying the Rosary. But Smurf leads her crime family by exuding a love for her sons and grandson akin to the loyalty of a soccer coach — and as shallow.

Weaver plays her to the hilt. When one son dies at the hands of the police, she comments that she can’t find a bright spot  in the situation at all, though she muses that she is usually able to find something good in every situation. Her mentality is full of such soap-opera philosophy, though in protecting the family, she can also be terrifyingly deliberate about murder.

The problem is that the characters in Smurf’s “animal kingdom” are so blocked by the banality of their evil that they seem hardly real. Or maybe I got that impression because their accents were so thickly Australian that I needed to put on the DVD’s English sub-titles to get what they were saying. I would have worked harder for a more substantial film.


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