In 1988 everything the world knew of suburban Melbourne came from one not-exactly unimpeachable source: Neighbours. Kylie and Jason were heading for marriage/Brisbane/ pop immortality.
“Motorbike” Mike (Guy Pearce) was dating Plain Jane Superbrain who, as one wag noted, was pretty as a picture and many times thicker. Death meant car crashes, cancer or unrenewed contracts. All was sexless, airbrushed, safe.
Just 10km southwest of Pin Oak Crescent, the true-life Ramsay Street, reality proved somewhat different, as realities usually do. The Pettingill family, a loose clan of South Yarra wrong ’uns, were fighting a bloody turf war against Melbourne’s Armed Robbery Squad, with innocent (or at least unarmed) victims executed by both sides. Suffice to say, Mrs Mangel would not have approved.
Fictionalised and updated, but following the ebb and flow of real-life events, David Michôd’s Oscar-nominated underworld saga explores this unseen Melbourne, where BBQ and bong smoke mingle against speckled suburban brick, where your neighbours might OD during Deal Or No Deal, or rape and kill you as you sleep.
Michôd says he wanted his debut to show how “the criminal world filters through society, crushing up against it even if we don’t realise it”. In which case, bullseye.
“Mum’s gone and OD’ed and she’s died,” blurts 17-year-old J (James Frecheville) down the phone to his hitherto estranged Grandma “Smurf” Cody (Jacki Weaver, Oscar-nommed for Best Supporting Actress).
From this inauspicious start, J soon finds himself inducted, rather forcefully, into Cody family life: waving guns, chopping lines and plotting pointless revenge, all while trying to “block out the thing they must know: crooks always come undone. Always.”
Animated by excellent ensemble acting, the Codys are a rum bunch all right. Whether making cakes or ordering kills, Weaver’s den mother spoils her sons with breathy, quasi-sexual affection, a queasy cross between Madge Bishop and Annie Wilkes.
Then there’s sensible Baz (Joel Edgerton), who might just about pass as a normal citizen; strung-out charmer Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), who joshes J, “D’ya get a little stiffy?” when violence flares; and metrosexual Uncle Darren (Luke Ford).
Forever sniffing out the weaknesses of social stragglers, Ben Mendelsohn’s Pope (a role written especially for him, as was Weaver’s) is one of recent cinema’s most malignant creations.
A spiteful Gollum with hyena eyes and a jet-black soul, he pollutes everything he touches, coveting J’s girl (Laura Wheelwright) like a pack predator would a weaker creature’s mate: without a second thought. Family matters: (above) clan mother “Smurf” (Jacki Weaver) comes over all maternal; (inset) Guy Pearce as moustachioed cop Leckie.
“He sets the tone in every room he’s in,” says Michôd of Mendelsohn during a candid Making Of, and it’s a testament to the writer/director’s casting nous that the actors blur so easily with their characters. If only Frecheville’s painful inexpressiveness were a put-on (“I don’t have too much to talk about, so I don’t,” he offers during an excruciating actors’ commentary).
Old Motorbike Mike himself (Pearce) does turn up in the unshowy supporting role of investigating officer Sgt Leckie, a decent man lent dignity by the actor’s charismatic blankness. “It’s all in the moustache,” he jokes in the interviews.
“There’s something more powerful about the mundane,” says Pearce perceptively, and the film repeatedly proves him right, with whispered showdowns taking place in supermarket aisles and salty dialogue undercutting the drama.
But what really elevates it above pulp or soap are the flashes of magic Michôd conjures from this blandest of backdrops. As Pope and Craig wrestle on the sofa, sudden slo-mo makes it primal, bestial.
Another swollen moment sees Pope crying crocodile tears to cock-rock music as he ponders his next crime: to rape or not to rape? Life in the Cody family alternately bores and terrifies, so the film’s languorous pace is interrupted by bursts of cokey urgency, where Michôd’s grand filmic designs become handheld smash-and-grabs. It’s both elegant and exciting.
The extras are similarly schizophrenic. Charting the film’s 10-year genesis, the hour-long Making Of is as thorough as Michôd himself, even as he admits, “Some days I hate it.”
Alas the commentaries seem to have been recorded during one such day. After a boring director’s effort (“Is that my stomach growling?”) the cast sulk and bicker through a silence-filled slog. “I just wanna do my work. How I got there is none of your business,” strops Weaver, four days into a press junket.
Meanwhile, the interviews are repeated from the featurette, and any deleted scenes, including a mentioned-in-passing 10-minute sequence showing Pope and co dismembering someone with a chainsaw, are, like the victim, completely MIA.
But these are just minor casualties in bringing Michôd’s bracingly coherent vision to the screen. Though he seems to have arrived fully formed, early shorts Ezra White LL.B and Crossbow show an Australian auteur repeatedly re-mapping the same familiar territory to uncover new truths.
The fact that it’s suburban Melbourne, not Scorsese’s mean streets or Meadow’s Midlands, matters not a jot.