Three recent movies give audiences textbook examples of different archetypes—or, if you want to be unkind, clichés—in crime dramas. All are decent movies of their type, but only one lingers and grows in the memory.
Few recent films have received reviews as wildly mixed as Anton Corbijn's The American. I understand why. The film contains several strong elements, of which the lead performance by George Clooney is only one. But at times—particularly in its first half—watching The American can seem like watching bloodstains dry.
The cinematic archetype of the lone gunman dates at least to Cagney and Bogart—even further, if you want to add Westerns to the mix. But The American also drinks deep of the existential well frequented by Camus and Antonioni, giving it a pronounced resemblance to Seventies films such as The Last Run that wallowed in the cinema's then-newly found nihilism.
In The American, Clooney plays a character known variously as Jack and Edward (neither of which may be his real name), an itinerant hit man and gunsmith taking orders from a shadowy boss named Pavel (Johan Leysen). After a suitably brutal beginning at a suitably frigid Swedish lake, Jack/Edward is forced to flee to Rome, where Pavel gives him a car and tells him to hole up in a tiny hill town in Abruzzo to await further orders.
In Abruzzo, Jack/Edward bides his time, wandering the town's mazelike streets, getting to know the local priest (Paolo Bonacelli), bedding down with a local prostitute named Clara (Violante Placido). The mysterious Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) comes with orders from Pavel to build a new high-powered rifle, which Jack/Edward does, painstakingly.
Corbijn and screenwriter Rowan Joffe make the point, all too well, that Jack/Edward's life is immobility punctuated by violence. But when Jack/Edward faces a sudden, unexpected attacker, his paranoia kicks in: who, among his new friends and acquaintances, has betrayed him? From here, Corbijn pulls the noose ever tighter around his protagonist. You can't exactly say that the pace picks up, but the stakes become higher and more immediate, for the audience as well as for Jack/Edward.
Clooney is best when a script engages his sense of humor, a quality in which The American is notably lacking. But, as Clooney proved in Michael Clayton and Up in the Air, he also excels at playing loners. Clooney makes the solitary watchfulness of Jack/Edward compelling in a way that helps the audience get through the story's slow stretches. It may not be Clooney's best performance, but it's the performance the material demands, and not every actor could give it.
After Clooney, the film's most interesting actor is Bonacelli—virtually unrecognizable from his savage turn 35 years ago as a Fascist nobleman in Pasolini's Salo—playing a philosophical, world-weary priest with a few secrets of his own. Cinematographer Martin Ruhe captures some breathtaking footage of mist-shrouded Abruzzo hill towns and of the naked flesh of Violante Placido, an actress with a lush, ripe beauty reminiscent of the young Isabella Rossellini.
If The American falls in with the traditional screen romanticizing of the lone outlaw, Ben Affleck's The Town is the latest film to capitalize on the traditional screen romanticizing of the criminal gang.
The Town is set in Charlestown, a neighborhood of Boston that—according to the screenplay by Affleck and Peter Craig, based on a novel by Chuck Hogan—has a higher density of professional bank robbers than any other community in the world. Doug MacRay (Affleck) has inherited the family business from his incarcerated father Stephen (Chris Cooper) and runs a crew that includes hothead Jim Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) as his second-in-command.
When one robbery goes awry, the masked crew blindfolds and kidnaps teller Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall), letting her go by the shore of the Charles River.
But after the FBI interrogates Claire about the robbery, Jim wants to find out precisely how much she can tell the cops about the gang. Doug promises to approach Claire—and, in doing so, starts to fall for her. This does not sit well with the volatile Jim, who would prefer to make sure Claire is silenced for good. (Claire of course never saw the gang's faces, but she did get a glimpse of a tattoo that would help her finger Jim.) Complicating matters is Doug's romantic history—and illegitimate child—with Krista (Blake Lively), Jim's unstable sister. Another complication is Fergus "Fergie" Colm (Pete Postlethwaite), the local godfather, who demands against Doug's protests that the gang do one more job for him—this one no less than the box office of that most sacrosanct of Boston shrines, Fenway Park.
The Town is Affleck's second film as a director; his first was the brilliant 2007 child-abduction thriller, Gone Baby Gone. The Town is an exciting, fast-moving thriller, excellently acted by a stellar ensemble cast. Its action scenes—particularly a heist in the film's mid-section in which the gang dresses as a group of zombie-faced nuns—are state-of-the-art. Yet although it would be completely unfair to say The Town represents a "sophomore slump" for Affleck, the movie is inferior to Gone Baby Gone. The earlier film, which starred Affleck's brother Casey and Bridget Moynihan as private detectives investigating a little girl's disappearance, took audiences into unimaginable yet all-too-plausible realms of depravity, and its final moral dilemma still leaves me breathless every time I think of it.
The Town, by comparison, is soft at its core. Doug MacRay is the movie's closest equivalent to the salt of the earth, a decent if flawed guy who lives as a criminal because he was given no choice. The movie doesn't canonize Doug, but it makes him vastly more admirable than Special FBI Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm), a cold-blooded sadist who seems to like being a lawman mainly for the opportunities it gives him to bully suspects and witnesses. The berserk Jim Coughlin is no worse than Frawley, and even the satanic Fergie is only slightly worse. I have no objection to the portrayal of corrupt or even evil cops on screen, but I do have problems when the lead character in what purports to be a realistic modern-day crime drama reminds me even slightly of Robin Hood or Sky Masterson.
For a modern-day crime drama that has absolutely no tinge of Damon Runyon, audiences should turn to Animal Kingdom, the debut feature of Australian director David Michod. Animal Kingdom isn't perfect, but it does create a memorable portrait of an all-encompassing, dog-eat-dog criminal society, as inescapable as a jungle and infinitely crueler.
Like Doug MacRay, Joshua "J" Cody (James Frecheville), the seventeen-year-old scion of a Melbourne crime family, never had a chance. The opening shot of Animal Kingdom shows J and his mother sitting on their living-room sofa, watching TV. J's mother appears to be asleep, but within seconds the rescue squad bursts through the front door; she is, in fact, dying of a heroin overdose. J is so alienated from his surroundings that, even as paramedics try to save his mother's life, he can't tear his eyes away from the silly game show he's watching.
J's mother tried to shield him from her family, but with her death he has nowhere else to go. He moves to the house owned by Grandma Janine, also known as Grandma Smurf (Jacki Weaver). Also living there are Uncle Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), a volatile, tattooed druggie; Uncle Darren (Luke Ford), a slow-witted, weak-willed pretty boy; and family friend Barry Brown (Joel Edgerton) who is running things while Uncle Andrew, a/k/a The Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), is on the lam from the cops.
When Barry suddenly leaves the picture (no fair saying how), Uncle Andrew moves back to Grandma Smurf's house, and from there J's troubles truly begin. The milieu the Codys live in is one of constant war between outlaws on one side and corrupt cops on the other; occasionally the two sides cooperate, but more often they take hits out on each other, the constant cycle of retribution escalating into rivers of blood. Here, Uncle Andrew is in his element as a predator among predators. He can manipulate whomever he wants into doing whatever he wants, and those who balk or prove inconvenient, he kills. His cunning and paranoia are boundless. Early on he manipulates J—who already is an expert car thief—and other family members into committing a bloody massacre that brings the wrath of the entire Melbourne police force down on the Codys.
While upright, well-meaning Detective Sgt. Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce) tries to steer J from a life of crime, Grandma Smurf has her own plans. Underneath her cheery exterior, Grandma is the most ruthless Cody of all, a diabolical schemer willing to sacrifice anything and anyone to preserve the family business. "Just because you don't want to do something," she says at a crucial point, "doesn't mean it can't be done."
Animal Kingdom tells a story of corruption so endemic that it engulfs the entire legal system. Some players are more willing or skillful than others—Ezra White (Dan Wyllie), Grandma Smurf's attorney, is a veritable Michael Jordan of criminality—but everyone who even tangentially touches that world is forced to play or die. Often, they play and die.
Animal Kingdom owes an obvious debt to Martin Scorsese's work, particularly The Departed. It can get a little annoying with its slo-mo camera effects and portentous electronic music. Also, a few things about the plot are a little too convenient—for instance, Leckie's total ignorance of the corruption in his own department. Nevertheless, the film's grim, violent action and superb ensemble cast make it compelling. Although its fatalism may as be as much a romantic construct as the more familiar tropes of The American and The Town, the fatalism nevertheless feels real, and it feels earned.
Animal Kingdom grows in the memory along with James Frecheville's performance as J. Bearing a physical resemblance to the very young Rupert Everett, Frecheville as first seems much too blank and passive—a Forrest Gump wandering into GoodFellas by mistake. However, as the film progresses, it becomes apparent that J's blankness is an instinctive reaction to the mayhem surrounding him—a kind of protective coloration. When the film reaches its unforgettable end, it is an enormous shock, but not totally a surprise.
The most poignant section of Animal Kingdom depicts J's romance with Nicky (Laura Wheelwright), a rebellious girl from a non-criminal family. Their love story is one not just of crossed stars, but of cross-purposes. Whereas Nicky is attracted by the aura of danger surrounding J, J loves the normality of Nicky's life, of saying grace over lovingly prepared meals that appear at regular times.
Nicky will live just long enough to regret her fascination with J's family. J, meanwhile, will merely receive confirmation of everything he already knew, sitting on the sofa beside his dying mother.