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The Boys from Oz

Australians have a history of distrust with the suburban space. It’s one that I think is far more ingrained than the ongoing American preoccupation with the suburbs. The abjection, otherness, decay and concealed violence of the suburban space, and the affect this space has on the Australian male, is an important part of the Australian imaginary. This is evident with the continuous repetition of these themes, particularly criminality and violence, in a whole host of recent films:  Wish You Were Here (2012), Snowtown (2011), Animal Kingdom (2010), Somersault (2004), The Boys (1998) and Head On (1998).

I’ve chosen to talk about The Boys and Animal Kingdom because I think that they offer a distinct and unique portrayal of masculinity: one that is on the borderline, in between the public and private, criminality and legality, contained in an uncanny domestic space. The everyday suburban space is ruptured, undone and exposed as an unsettling site for a stifling and childlike male development, categorised by violence and the need to return to the maternal. This is the common trope in Australian domestic cinema ‘which finds expression in a distorted reflection akin to a hall of mirrors; each person staring back is undoubtedly familiar, but is in some way simultaneously emphasised, concealed and misshapen.’ (Thomas and Gillard, Metro Magazine, 2003)

Both The Boys and Animal Kingdom have been credited with leading the resurgence of an ailing local film industry. Animal Kingdom was also been well received by the America market, with Jacki Weaver nominated for best supporting actress in 2011. Both are described as crime dramas/thrillers, and both revolve around a group of three brothers who are caught in an endless cycle of violence in the suburbs. I want to argue that these Australian brothers inhabit the suburban criminal space very differently from their American counterparts, such as those on The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, even Drive. 

The Boys (1998) charts the return of Brett to his family home in Sydney after being imprisoned for assault, where he seeks to reassert his authority with his two brothers, Stevie and Glen, and his mother. Following the course of the next twenty-four hours, Brett, Stevie and Glen gradually become undone, leading them to commit a brutal rape and murder. Animal Kingdom (2010) follows the disintegration of a criminal family told through the eyes of seventeen year old Josh, as his three uncles, Pope, Darren and Craig, attempt to seek vengeance for the death of their brother at police hands.

What I think is interesting is the way that both these films start from the moment of the undoing, the unravelling.  The ascent or any triumphs made by the men and boys in these films is unnecessary, deliberately excluded, and neither film shows any material success from their illegal activities: what is important is the point of decay, the decline. This is quite different from most American crime dramas that often celebrate the ascent before the fall, or those recent films looking at an unrelenting working-class masculinity such as that depicted in The Wrestler, The Fighter, and Warriors.

There is laziness, a slowness, in both these films: boredom and inevitable decay. And it is the space that the characters inhabit that is so jarring – domestic, feminine, childish. The long opening credit sequence of The Boys features this uncanny domesticity with in and out of focus objects: the television, coat hangers, light switches, and children’s toys.  There is something Lynchian about it, but it isn’t surreal or dreamlike. We are in the interior, private space, but with hysteric male inhabitants that disrupt the coherence.

The adult men in both these films are boys, adolescent, trapped in a space that they are unable to escape from, impotent, and thus resort to criminality, cyclical violence, drug use and rape. Any sense of authority is ruptured: Brett is repeatedly undermined by the women around him in The Boys, he’s called an asshole, weak, doesn’t get the respect that he deserves, whilst Josh narrates the repetitive and disabling sense of fear that constrains Pope, Craig and Darren. At the same time there is a desire, a need, to remain within domestic space: maternal and safe. It is significant that all of the illegal operations stem from the home, from their mother’s domain, and to whom they continually return. It is this unsettling and unnatural umbilical bond that is inherently linked to the failed masculinity of the boys: they are made impotent and violent through their Oedipal bond to their mothers. There is an almost sexual closeness that Grandma Smurf has for her children and her grandson in Animal Kingdom, and Brett desires after his mother and in some ways, his other younger brothers, and the rage fuelled by his mother’s new boyfriend propels him towards an inevitable violent outcome in The Boys.

This appears to be another critique of the suburban space; that it is too feminine, that a male who remains too long in this environment will be forever an adolescent, clutched by his mother, eventually desiring her. Perhaps it is this hidden horror that has led to the repeated failure of the formation of the male subjects in both films. That they have all failed in their attempt at masculine performativity; they are left without the coherent authority of the masculine subject, and as a result, can only turn inward and uneasily inhabit the household. And it is in this impotence, in this unnamed desire, within which the propensity for violence comes, to turn towards those weaker than them, in both cases, young women, and destroy this spectacle of light and femininity in a moment of unrelenting desire for power.

Much of the plot of Animal Kingdom revolves around whether Josh is going to give the male police the evidence they need to convict, but again and again Josh chooses his grandmother, his only maternal and caring figure, over any male authority.  The main premise of the film is the idea that the strong defeat the weak, evolution of a sort, survival of the fittest. Yet Josh, at seventeen, becomes strong through violence, but ultimately returns again to the womb, to the maternal: in a sense he fails, and is destined to repeat the same cycle of violence as his uncles with the final frame of the film seeing Josh in his grandmother’s embrace. Brett’s mother is ultimately destroyed, losing all her family, her only three sons, through their one violent crime. Her leniency towards them, her desire to protect them and keep them in the household falling apart, and eventually she must walk away.

This kind of maternal and family obsession underlies both crime dramas: it is what fuels the narrative and what holds fast for all male subjects. Is it specifically Australian? The very repetition of these themes across so many films suggests that it is definitely an ongoing preoccupation. And there is something Australian about the malaise, the heat, the slowness. But what it reveals again and again is the significance of the suburban affect on the male subject, a recurring preoccupation with the notion that the domestic house does something to masculinity, fractures it, ruins its formation, ultimately disabling coherence and stability. What remains is violence, violence without focus, without an end.

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  1. dl.flsxzkmrkyrzk

      cool, australian films, represent!

  2. deadgod

      abjection, otherness, decay and concealed violence of the suburban space, and the affect this space has on the Australian male

      These parameters are also thematized in Western and gangster movies. What’s particularly “suburban” about the “space” in Animal Kingdom?–which I thought was straight outta Melbourne. I mean that there’re trees in that movie, but I thought it was an urban gangster story, albeit of a ‘city’ like Los Angeles rather than New York.

      Is it true that the “space” in Animal Kingdom has an affect on the “males” within it, more so dialectically than that the particular “males” who are there stretch it into their own shapes? What is “the suburban space” without its “males”?

      My understanding is that Australia – all of it: descendants of pre-contact peoples, city, outback, suburb, the sea – is shaped in each part by a narrative more determining than each part’s individuation–namely, that of exile, particularly of penal colonization. Are the “abjection, otherness, decay and concealed violence” of any part of Australia not contextualized by her shared history of incarceral territory and its escapes and transformations?

  3. naomir

      Thanks for commenting! I see now that I probably should have defined this suburban space more clearly, and more importantly, the idea of the domestic site in the suburbs. Yes, although Animal Kingdom is set in Melbourne, which could be likened to LA in the way that there is a definite overwhelming and disparate sprawl from the CBD, it is definitely suburban, rather than urban – the locations given ‘Bridge Rd’, ‘Church St’ and St Kilda are close to the CBD but definitely not high density areas, they still have quarter acre blocks, single-story houses and so on, hovering just outside the CBD. In most of the shots the city/cbd is in the background/peripheral to the action. The other issue is that suburban space has a history of being classified as feminine space – hence the importance of locating males in this site, not only in suburbia but in the suburban home.
      I think what you say about penal colonisation is interesting – and yes there is definitely an element in both films relating to this idea of violence/otherness and the way that Australians negotiate authority and crime. But i think there is definitely something familial in both films, specifically ideas surrounding the mother, and the relation between mother and son in the domestic space that is important too, and not necessarily related to the history of incarceration and escape. Hope that answers your questions!

  4. deadgod

      Thank you for the opportunity to disagree where we do. Maybe because all the Australian movies I remember seeing are at least good–harder to export crap? not ours, ha ha–, their representation of “Australia” is interesting to me, and your discussion provocative.

      Yes, you made clear the ‘femininity’ of suburbs–and, in Animal Kingdom, maternal dominion is surely the context of the sons’ grasping – and fumbling – of power.

      I do wonder if the suburb itself is really superordinately ‘feminine’, though. A suburb is the place where a man takes charge of his own property, where he orders the lives of his family, where he polices even his neighbors (to the extent that he wills and can). That actual men in actual suburbs are hemmed all around by the bank, utility companies, stronger neighbors, social preconditions, and the shooting-through his designs of ‘feminine’ countering–well, that’s true of ‘masculinity’ everywhere. A “suburb” is a place that tests masculinity, but that doesn’t make it a ‘feminine’ space.

      I mean that I don’t think the decomposition of masculinity that happens in, for example, Animal Kingdom is caused by the femininity of the space contextualizing the story. (–which I hope isn’t an exaggeration or mischaracterization of your view.) The mom is a destructive gangster–her ‘home’ would be psychotically destabilizing in a city-center condo or a ranch 50 miles from a small town.

      I’m also not sure–not just as you use the word, but when anybody does–what “suburb” really connotes. Single-family dwellings, mostly one- and two-storey buildings, at least a bit of dirt between residences… sure, that’s not the office-tower ‘center’ of a city. But then are we to define ‘urban’ as ‘only towers’–which might work for Manhattan but not for the Bay Area (to use US examples)?

      I agree that the devouring mommy in Animal Kingdom can’t be reduced to ‘penal-colony history’–as though the latter completely entailed the former–. The question would be, rather: in a ‘nation’ where pretty much everything is contextualized by a shared history of penal colonization, what does a devouring-mommy/sons-unable-to-compete,-deal,-or-flee story look like? In my view, to see that story as generated by and, in turn, generative of “suburban space” – and not so much by and of that national history – would depend on a clear view of the limen “suburb” and on the organizing activity of such a space.