August 12, 2010 / 8:53 PM / 7 years ago

Aussie actors steal spotlight in "Animal Kingdom"

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Russell Crowe, Eric Bana and Sam Worthington may be in favor in Hollywood, but a new group of Aussie actors are winning fans in indie crime drama "Animal Kingdom" and could soon challenge their countrymen with jobs in studio movies.

The movie, which debuts in major U.S. cities on Friday, likens remaining alive in the Australian crime world to the theory of survival-of-the-fittest, which has always been the rule of maintaining a strong Hollywood career.

"Animal Kingdom" was named best dramatic film by judges at January's Sundance film festival, and if early reviews are any indication, it is having similar sway with critics.

The movie features Guy Pearce, who is fairly well-known in the United States, but surrounding him is an ensemble that includes Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton and Jacki Weaver -- hardly U.S. household names.

It tells of an alienated teenage boy who moves into the Melbourne home of his grandmother and once there, follows the path of his volatile uncles into a world of robbery, drug-dealing and murder while also being pursued by police.

Director and writer David Michod, who is making his debut feature film with "Animal Kingdom," spent 10 years developing the story among other projects and said the title is derived from its "social Darwinist survival-of-the-fittest theme."

"I wanted it to be about cops and robbers and everything in between and the ways in which all of these different animals, in a sense, move in this particular jungle and the way they brush up against each other," he told Reuters.

The movie has been compared to British crime films of the past decade with numerous twists and turns.

The IndieWire website, which tracks the independent film world, said "Michod's cold, hopeless vision of life and death will appeal to fans of early Coen brothers noirs."

Showbiz magazine Variety chimed in with, "Michod's unusually accomplished feature debut unfolds with a confident, almost antiquated sense of deliberation."

INSPIRED BY REAL LIFE

Michod, 38, said he was inspired by real-life crime families and events in Melbourne in the 1980s -- including a street murder of two young policeman that at the time Michod found "chilling and shocking."

"They were the dying days of the old-school bank robber and the dying days of an equally old-school, hardened core of the armed robbery squad in Melbourne," he said.

Beyond the story, however, it has been the ensemble cast -- many of whom have long been known in their native Australia -- that has wowed fans and critics in early screenings.

Edgerton earned some plaudits last year sharing the stage with Cate Blanchett in New York in "A Streetcar Named Desire" and is moving from starring in several Australian films to U.S. movies. Mendelsohn, who appeared in Baz Luhrmann's "Australia," has long been considered one of Australia's best actors whose fame has yet to transfer overseas.

And Weaver, 63, who plays the tough and nurturing grandmother Janine "Smurf" Cody has carved out a career over four decades in her native land on stage and screen.

Having spent part of his childhood and considerable time as an adult in Melbourne, Mendelsohn said it was fairly easy to imagine his disturbed character, a thug whose "business" in armed robbery doesn't make the money it once did.

He said his character, Andrew 'Pope" Cody, expresses himself violently as a normal way of life, yet "in an unchecked kind of person like him, it (anger) will go to extreme kind of places."

Michod said he specifically wrote roles for several of the actors, including for Mendelsohn. "I relished being able to give him something meaty to chew on," he said.

And one of his goals in creating tension for the movie was to keep the angry and violent personalities of the characters underneath their skin and inside their own minds until they lash out.

"I wanted the violence to explode out of nowhere and be gone in the blink of an eye, which is how I imagine violent events are experienced by people in the real world," he said.

Now in talks with Hollywood for his next film, Michod said waiting 10 years for the film to come to the big screen was, in hindsight, worthwhile.

"All young filmmakers should be prepared for the possibility it may take that long and it should take that long," he said.

But after that, and as long as you have a hit -- which Crowe, Bana and Worthington well know -- careers can change fast in Hollywood.

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte

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