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Born Into This: Family as Prison in “Animal Kingdom” and “Winter’s Bone”

Born Into This: Family as Prison in "Animal Kingdom" and "Winter's Bone"

David Michod’s Sundance-winning crime film “Animal Kingdom” expands to theaters in Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and other parts of California in addition to its LA and NYC locations today. I highly recommend you see it — twice if you can — once it hits your area (see its bookings through October here). Also, if you haven’t yet seen “Winter’s Bone” and you’re anywhere near one of the 131 screens playing it, see the darn thing already (otherwise wait for its Oct. 26 DVD release).

We don’t get to choose what kind of family we’re born into. So it’s up to us to do the best we can with both the genes and environment we’re handed. For J (James Frecheville), the young protagonist of “Animal Kingdom,” the best had been to coast through existence, stone-faced, mouth open, like a zombie. But then his junkie mother ODs and he’s got nowhere else to go but to Grandma’s house, where it’s a lot harder to sit idly by watching game shows and ignoring what’s going on around him. Suddenly he’s got a lot of people — mainly his three uncles, but other involved parties, as well — telling him what to do and how to do it, from washing his hands after using the toilet to stealing cars to testifying in court.

At Sundance, “Animal Kingdom” was harmoniously buzzed about as being an Australian “The Departed.” Honestly, I see very few reasons for such a comparison, though it can be related by way of common links apparent in Ben Affleck’s upcoming “The Town.” But you could just as easily say this is an Australian “Shaun of the Dead” only with a small crime family in place of the zombies, because it similarly involves a passive, passionless individual snapping out of his lethargic and routine drudgery to step up as a hero, or at least someone in control of his own survival and destiny. The movie I continually come back to for comparison to “Animal Kingdom” is its fellow Sundance winner “Winter’s Bone.” Not because they’re alike. In fact they are opposites in many ways, but they both deal with that spark of an idea of a protagonist being born into his or her narrative.

In “Winter’s Bone,” the teenage protagonist, Ree (Jennifer Lawrence), is active from the start. Her sudden involvement with non-immediate family members is actually more unwanted than J’s, but she shows far more initiative and spirit in reaching out to uncles and cousins when a need to locate her fugitive father is necessary for her and her sibling’s survival as a small unit, with their mentally ill mother. J has one active moment at the start of “Animal Kingdom.” He has to make the call to Grandma (Jacki Weaver) to let her know that he needs a new guardian, because he doesn’t really know how to do anything by himself. Ree, on the other hand, has been for the most part taking care of herself and her brother and sister and their mother for a while.

Since seeing “Animal Kingdom” a second time (the first was before seeing “Winter’s Bone,” the second was after), I keep wondering what would happen to Ree if her house was repossessed as threatened in the film. What if she or the other kids were forced to go live with the criminals in her extended family? I assume they’d run away, if they were even welcomed in the way J’s extended clan embraces him. But who knows to where? The world of “Winter’s Bone” seems to have few places to escape to, as if the Ozarks were fenced in with no way out, whereas there are seemingly normal and happy families in “Animal Kingdom” that are contrasted against J’s. He can’t easily slip out of the environment he’s born into, but there’s at least more to 1980s Melbourne than its criminal underground.

Both environments are like prisons, as I realized while watching another of the few great films of this year, Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” (“Un Prophete”). Though people aren’t exactly born into penitentiaries, the protagonist of this film, Malik (Tahar Rahim), does appear to have been completely raised in penal systems, having grown up primarily in juvenile detention. And the way he’s brought into a Coriscan mafia family is pretty much as fated as the way J is brought into his blood-related group.

I’ve often wondered what would happen to me or what I would need to do if I ever ended up in prison. Is there anyone who hasn’t pondered the possibilities, regardless of the likelihood of their ending up there? Between “Animal Kingdom” and “Winter’s Bone,” though I’ve been thinking about the more common — the unavoidable, really — circumstance of family, and how different people escape, avoid, adapt or otherwise function actively or passively in relation to immediate and extended units. I think about the separate ways my brothers and I have grown up through our family system (I’m more of a J than a Ree). And this isn’t to say we didn’t have a great family (and if anything these films will make you unable to complain about your own family), but everyone has to eventually, at some point, break out of that system, at least from how they’ve known it (as children), physically, psychologically and emotionally.

I don’t know if this is true or not, but while contemplating these films and unfortunately having seen the “Little Fockers” trailer this week, I thought about how movies involving blood-related family tend to be serious dramas while the processes of starting new families, maritally and parentally, tend to be comedies. I’ll have to look into this further and come back to the idea. In the meantime, if you’ve anything to add to these thoughts about “Animal Kingdom” and/or “Winter’s Bone,” leave me a comment below.

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