2010 was the year for David Michôd’s critically acclaimed Animal Kingdom , which won a prize at Sundance, dominated the 2010 AFI Awards at home and recently got Jackie Weaver an Academy Award nom for Best Supporting Actress.
by Nina Warren
The aim of my analysis is not to critique the film but to observe whether the story’s structure followed the principles espoused both by Christopher Vogler, in his book The Writer’s Journey – based on the mythmaking philosophies of Joseph Campbell, and by Paul Gulino’s Eight Sequence Approach. If it did not, where and how did that deviation affect the dynamics of the story as a whole?
Brendan Walsh of ScreenCrave called it “Perfectly crafted.” Paul Byrnes of SMH said “Most great movies are built on character, before plot. This one is built around the malevolent force of the eldest son Pope, a destroyer, and Janine the mother, a kind of preserver.” That seemed odd to me because I thought the main character was Josh, not Pope or Janine.
Stephen Holden of the New York Times said, “The film’s depiction of the raw fear lurking below the brothers’ braggadocio is the most pronounced emotion in a movie whose focus on the personalities of its criminals suggests an Australian answer to “Goodfellas,” minus the wise-guy humor.” High praise but again, it talks about the uncles, not Josh, and now I know why…
Sequence A: Reunited with estranged family. (18 mins)
00:22 J watches a game show with his ‘sleeping’ mum.
00:50 Medics arrive. What has she taken? J: Heroine.
01:33 J calls Grandma Smurf: Mum’s dead, I don’t know what to do.
03:00 Smurf arrives: Get your bags honey.
03:41 Titles continue with B&W shots of robbery.
05:44 J’s VO: Mum kept me away from my family because she was scared.
06:22 J enters and greets his uncle Darren and Baz .
07:00 His other uncle, a hyper Craig emerges. Smurf: Give me a kiss.
07:53 J’s VO: Crooks always come undone. Baz hides cash at home.
08:25 J’s VO: Armed robbery squad was after Baz and my family.
08.55 Baz walks to police parked outside. Baz: He’s not here.
09:20 Det. Roach tells Craig to warn Pope to pull his head in.
11:00 Road rage at lights. Craig gives gun to J, “Let ‘em know who’s king.”
12:22 In restaurant, C aims prawn at J’s girlfriend Nic’s open mouth for $200.
12:50 Baz teaches J toilet etiquette.
14:29 Men discuss situation. “Armed robbery don’t do business.”
14:55 They all leave restaurant upbeat.
15:35 Craig offers Nic coke. J answers no for her. Nic: Says who?
16:20 Pope surprises J in the kitchen. “Guess, who am I?”
17:00 Baz tells Pope that armed robbery have nothing on them.
18:00 Craig and Pope playfully tackle but it doesn’t look like fun.
The introduction of our main character and the set up of the ordinary world is very short (1 min) but powerful; the use of montage capturing B&W shots of a robbery during the titles, forewarns us of the special and violent world that J, the tragic Hero, will be entering, consistent with Act One of the Hero’s Journey.
Normally in this sequence the dramatic question is first posed, however, there is no obvious question in AK. In fact, in the VO J says “This is where I was and this is what I was doing.” – an acceptance of events without question.
The inciting incident takes place when J is a passenger in his uncle’s car; at the lights, Craig is insulted by two punks. He hands over his gun to J, before taking off in pursuit. J is told to: Let ‘em know who’s king. It is a Call to Adventure that we do not want him to take. Usually, at this point of the story, our Hero begins to be more aware of his flaw, and so begins his inner journey. This is not present here; instead we see a passive main character more aware of the flaws of his family than any of his own.
He is an observer not a participant.
Sequence B: Retaliation for Baz. (17 mins)
19:35 Baz, careful of police bugs, tells Cath he’s going to meet Pope.
20:35 Baz tells Pope: Our game, it’s over – it’s getting too hard.
22:19 Armed robbery squad: He’s got a gun! Pope sees Baz’s death from afar.
22:49 Craig cries in grief. Smurf comforts him.
23:39 Nic asks her mum if J can stay. “There are things going on.”
26:09 Pope carries a sleeping Nic to bed. J walks in.
27:00 Smurf tells J it was a card game that caused the rift between her and his mum.
28:32 Pope and Craig see surveillance at Baz’s funeral.
30:40 Pope tells Darren they should do something about Baz.
31:25 Pope tells J to get a car and deliver it to Darren’s by 2am.
32:22 J hot-wires a car.
32:49 J tells Pope where the car is and the uncles leave.
33:35 Cops arrive for their shift; radio call – investigate possible stolen car.
34:20 J sits at Darren’s and waits.
35:30 Cops look inside car and are shot.
36:30 J hears D and finds him frantically the scrubbing soles of his shoes.
In sequence B, J must grapple with the destabilizing effect of Baz’s murder on the family.
Normally it is the Hero who attempts to resolve the problem, but here, it is Pope, our Hero’s antagonist who makes the disastrous decision of avenging his friend’s death. J is not making any decisions at all and is in fact largely ignored by the family, except when Pope asks him to find a car but is not told why.
His Call to Adventure elicits very little reaction; we do not see J express reluctance or Refusal of the Call to adventure.
Therefore the Act One climax – where the Hero’s action or decision signals a clear and visible goal – is not apparent.
Sequence C: Sgt Leckie sees through J’s weak alibi. (11 mins)
37.02 At Darren’s J is woken by the phone – caller hangs up.
38:35 J arrives home. Armed police burst in to arrest J and Pope.
39:20 J and Pope see Darren cuffed at police station.
40:00 Sgts Leckie and Norris begin taking J’s statement re: murder of cops.
43:40 Smurf tells Pope he should start taking his pills again.
44:58 Smurf tells C to go to the cops. “Where’s J?”
45:50 J helps out Nic’s mum. “How was your friend’s funeral?”
47:02 J watches news of the murder on TV whilst Nic talks to family.
47:42 Darren comes for J next day. Mum: I do a lot for you Nic.
48:31 J: Where are we going? Darren: To see our lawyer.
There is none of the determination and energy of the Hero’s first attempt at solving the problem, because he is unaware that the murder of the two policemen is his problem too.
In the beginning of Act Two, we see our Hero crossing the First Threshold into adventure when he is arrested. The imagery used for signaling the crossing of the threshold is done in an interesting and deliberate way: Josh along with Pope, are led in handcuffs, slow motion, down the stark white corridor of the police station. J’s interview is where his first test begins, that is, to provide his uncles with a credible alibi, which he can’t do.
There is still no specific goal for J, only mounting events that he has not actively responded to with action. The flawed mentor is introduced in the guise of the conflicted Sgt Leckie.
Sequence D: Police close in and Craig is killed – Midpoint. (14 mins)
48:49 Ezra lays down the law – no talking to cops or to Nic.
50:50 Craig gets spooked at petrol station by cops.
52:00 Craig at friend’s house. “How long are you wanting to stay?”
53:44 Craig: How can there be a bug in your house?!
54:44 Police arrive, Craig runs and is shot.
56:10 Leckie receives call. “Craig Cody’s gone mate”
56:40 Smurf: I’m having trouble finding my positive spin.
58:01 Leckie arrives just as J is about to flee from Pope’s anger.
59:22 Smurf tells Leckie she hopes they find the killers.
59:30 J gets ready to leave with Leckie. Pope: You’re not alone.
59:53 Leckie interviews J. Ezra is present. J says nothing.
61:20 Ezra talks to uncles about J: You got to be worried about what he’s doing.
61:40 J overhears Ezra talk to uncles. “Keep an eagle eye on him.”
62:00 J quickly goes back to his room. Nic is on the phone.
62:19 E: Is he talking to her? D: So he’s my responsibility?
62:42 D tells J that the cops are on to him like a rash.
62:53 Nic walks in on conversation: What’s going on?
63:12 Darren tells J to cut Nic loose. J: This has got nothing to do with me!
This sequence normally finds the main character’s first attempt at resolution failing, but here, J remains passive.
Before the midpoint, there is what is known as The Ordeal, where our Hero faces his greatest challenge. In AK it could be when J decides to end his relationship with Nic, not because he wants to but because he is told to. The midpoint takes place in a location which appears in no other scene which is consistent with this turning point. This location is Zanoni’s where J tells Nic he needs some space.
The midpoint reversal usually signals our Hero following the right approach, but here, J remains silent during the second interview with Sgt Leckie because he is told to by Ezra, the family’s lawyer. Even now, at this late stage J is lacking in executing any specific goal and has no control, which is unusual so late in the film.
At (60:01), our Hero moves towards what is known as Approach to the Inmost Cave, where he overhears important information given by Ezra to his uncles “Keep an eagle eye on him.” When J tells Darren that the situation has nothing do to with him, Darren explodes with “Everything has to do with everyone.”
This moment is when J begins to be aware of his flaw – a young man in denial – who is reluctant to change (62:41) which is traditionally placed in Act One, Sequence A.
Sequence E: Leckie separates J from the family ‘for his safety’. (7mins)
63:41 J tells Nic he needs some space at Zanoni’s
64:33 Leckie interrupts them and tells J they need to talk.
65:22 J leaves with Leckie and Norris.
65:44 Nic in the toilet, upset.
66:29 Nic goes to J’s, accepts hot-shot from P. He smothers her.
70:00 Leckie takes J to a motel for his safety.
70:20 Pope carries Nic’s body through alley.
70:39 J sits in the motel room alone.
At this point, the Act Two climax, we would traditionally see the fulfillment of the Hero’s inner journey where the main character will cease to change.
All action by the Hero is a result of this change, but in AK the ratio of events and action are seriously out of balance.
There is still no attempt at a resolution or a turnaround by J of an objective normally associated with this sequence, but what we do see are new complications and higher stakes created by J’s decision to let Nic go and Leckie’s arrival at Zanoni’s.
Sequence F: It’s all my fault. (19 mins)
71.10 Norris wakes J and asks if he is scared of him.
72:10 Leckie: Let’s go sit outside for a bit, just you and me.
72:30 Leckie to J: You’ve got to work out where you fit.
75:40 J arrives home and lies about where he’s been.
76:11 J overhears Pope on phone to Darren. ”He just walked in.”
76:24 J finds Nic’s bracelet outside. J calls Nic’s mobile and hears it nearby.
76:52 Pope runs out and J runs away.
77:30 Smurf: What’s wrong? Pope to Darren: What’s her address?!
77:41 J goes to Nic’s place. Gus: Nicky’s not her J.
78:27 In the toilet Nic’s things make him cry. D rings J “Get out!”
79:37 J asks Gus for a lift to town.
80:46 Pope hits them with his car. J runs.
Traditionally, in this sequence, the elimination of all easy potential solutions still has not made the road any easier, so our Hero makes a final bid at a resolution and the dramatic question of the movie is answered. But none of this happens in AK, how can it when J continues to be passive?
After The Ordeal we come to The Reward and though we would logically assume it is a high point, here it is a moment of clarity, where J’s begins to see through the deception of Sgt Leckie when he is told to spend the night in a motel; those missing hours will be questioned by Pope and J will have to lie.
When J finds Nic’s bracelet outside his home it is yet another event; J isn’t actively pursuing any goal or resolving any problem. But what we do witness here is J’s moment of truth, when he breaks down and realizes Nic is dead and he must now give up his old life.
However, there is no public redemption where our Hero would traditionally state his new goal, in AK, J remains silent.
Sequence G: Who do I trust? (19mins)
81:18 J sits at supermarket waiting. Leckie arrives with police.
82:06 J is back at police station.
82:15 Nic’s body lies in an alleyway.
82:34 Nic’s family grieves.
82:48 Darren and Pope are arrested.
83:41 Leckie leaves J in safe-house.
84:05 Smurf at prison. “You’re not getting bail.” P: Do something.
85:35 S gives Ezra address of J’s safe-house. “J’s turned.”
86:53 S tells Roach a story about it being a bad situation for everyone.
88:50 J inside safe house with police
88:53 Armed drug squad get out of car.
89:10 Police inside see them approach and surrender.
89:58 Drug squad raid safe-house. Roach aims gun, J gets away.
90:15 Smerf at her apartment with neighbor – somebody at door.
90:35 J asks if S is alone. “I want P out of jail, I can’t live like this.”
91:00 Outside, J tells S to set up meeting with Ezra but somewhere public.
91:20 J to E “I’m not safe. I’ll take my chances with witness protection.”
91:45 J meets barrister who thinks the case against P & D is flimsy.
93:10 J goes back to safe-house. Leckie: You’re not in any danger.
93:53 L waits with J before going to court. “Are you ready?”
94:49 J arrives at court with army of armed police escorts.
95:23 J rehearses his answers for defense team.
97:24 J is escorted out of court building.
97:54 Policeman points gun at J in van on the way from court – J doesn’t react.
98:48 Leckie: Have you worked out where you fit?
99:22 Smurf gives a TV interview about the acquittal.
100:3 S bumps into L in the grocery. L: You’ll come unstuck.
Traditionally in this sequence, the stakes escalate and unexpected complications can arise from any resolution made in sequence F.
Also, the film’s energy revs up and it’s all action driven as the Hero goes for the win, but in AK, the pace slows as we see J calmly calling the shots and pursuing a specific goal for the FIRST TIME.
Sequence H: Josh’s retaliation. (3 mins)
101:4 J surprises Smurf after absence. “Is it ok if I move back in here?”
102:3 J greets his uncles in the backyard. J: I’m gonna lie down for a bit.
103:0 Pope walks into J’s room; J knows he’s there.
103:2 Pope: It’s a crazy f*#=’n world. J shoots him dead.
103:4 J exits the room. He hugs a shocked Smurf and looks calmly out at Darren.
In this last sequence we usually see the resolution of a movie, where the tension is resolved and any loose ends are tied off.
At the conclusion of the Hero’s Journey there is normally a feeling of catharsis, but by not following a traditionally structured screenplay, I believe we are robbed of what could have been an even more emotionally intense ending.
The Road Back, where the Hero must make the choice whether to remain in the special world or journey home, is answered when J pulls the trigger. J’s Resurrection in the Hero’s Journey is one of rebirth as a vengeful killer who ‘hugs’ his grandmother after killing her eldest son.
By examining how the plot of AK deviates from structural principles (Vogler and Gulino), we can better understand the comments made by the various critiques, which single out the characters of the uncles and Smurf.
The aim of the screenwriter is to design meaningful events into the story in order to observe how the main character responds, thereby allowing the audience to become involved and engage with him.
In AK we don’t see J actively resolving any issues until Act Three; instead we begin to follow and engage with the more interesting characters of Pope and Smurf. Perhaps it is why the ending appeared abrupt; we were not actively involved in J’s personal story which unwittingly robs the audience of any anticipation and dread of the possible outcome.
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.