Animal Kingdom: The Hot Australian Film with Early Oscar Buzz

For his crime drama Animal Kingdom, David Michod attracted Guy Pearce and Australian stage star Jacki Weaver—and now he’s getting awards season heat. He tells Jacob Bernstein how he got into the business.

Australian film "Animal Kingdom." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

“Riveting,” said the Associated Press. “A phenomenal debut,” said The Wall Street Journal. “Hypnotic,” said Salon. In one day, Animal Kingdom had become the best-reviewed movie of the year thus far.

With plaudits like this, one might expect the thriller’s director, David Michôd, to start making egocentric comparisons to Scorsese or Tarantino.

Instead, when asked how he became a director, all he can express is a certain bewilderment that he even got a movie onto the festival circuit. After all, he was that rare bird who never really knew he was meant to direct movies until the career found him.

“When I hear that people are frightened by Animal Kingdom, it’s truly gratifying,” says Jacki Weaver, who plays the film’s matriarch.

The 38-year-old Aussie writer-director went to the University of Melbourne, where he earned an arts degree. Then he went to film school largely because he needed something to do. After that, he wound up at a little magazine called Inside Film, which is less Entertainment Weekly and more Filmmaker magazine.

“I kind of stumbled into the whole thing,” Michôd says by phone. “I had an arts degree and was profoundly aware at the end of it that I had loaded my brain up with information and didn’t know where to put it. And then I just suddenly found it very important that I work out what I wanted to do with my life, so I applied to film school. I loved movies but I’d never had any part aspiration to make them.”

After six years at Inside Film, Michôd directed a couple of award-winning shorts and wrote the script for Animal Kingdom, about a teenage boy who moves in with his grandmother and her four sons after his mother dies from a drug overdose. They turn out to be a gang of armed robbers in Melbourne who are under increasing attention from the police. As he conceived it, the movie was both a sprawling neo-noir and a tiny, self-contained drama about how crime doesn't pay, as told through the breakdown of one truly dysfunctional family.

In short order, Guy Pearce agreed to star in the film, as the cop hunting them down. Jacki Weaver, a famed Aussie stage actress, signed on to play the film’s matriarch, a grandmother who appears at first glance to be sweet as apple pie, and then turns out to be a ruthless sociopath responsible for the downfall of the boy’s uncles. (Think Monique’s character in Precious and James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano rolled into one.) Michôd’s good friend Joel Edgerton, a rising star in the Aussie crime-film scene—he and his brother Nash are responsible for The Square, another much acclaimed recent thriller from the Land of Oz—was tapped as one of the uncles. More than $2 million in funding came from the Australian government. The other half of the $4 million-plus budget came from sources close to the filmmaker and his producer, Liz Watts.

In January, the film made its debut at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury prize for World Cinema. Sony Pictures Classics signed on to handle U.S. distribution. Rave reviews followed from virtually every major critic that saw it. By last week, just after it opened in New York and Los Angeles, Oscar consultants were beginning to float the idea that the film, and its loopy matriarch, might be awards season favorites.

As Weaver saw it, doing the film had been something of a dream since she saw an early draft of the script several years ago. “I liked the fact that she was so complex,” the actress says. “It wasn’t obvious from the start what an unsavory person she was. I don’t like to say evil, because it’s too towering, but let’s face it: She’s not a good person. She’s a monster, and I like the way you don’t realize that straight away, I think that’s far more interesting than if you show her true colors right from the beginning.”

Weaver also saw the role as something of a career refresher. “I was the girl next door and the middle-aged woman next door, so I’m much more likely to get ‘nice’ roles. Last year I was in Steel Magnolias for seven months! When I hear that people are frightened by Animal Kingdom, it’s truly gratifying.”

Still, Weaver does want it known that her character’s habit of kissing her adult children on the lips is nothing like her experience in real life. “My mother’s English,” she says. “She just didn’t do anything like that. I think the last time I kissed my son on the lips, he was 2½ years old.”

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Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.