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The True-Crime Story That Inspired Animal Kingdom

Before he directed "The King" and "War Machine" for Netflix, director David Michôd's breakout film was the Australian drama "Animal Kingdom." A gritty, violent crime thriller rippling with interpersonal tension, the movie focuses on the machinations and betrayals of the fictional Cody crime family. 

The Cody gang, which includes Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) and family friend Baz (Joel Edgerton), mainly pulls armed robberies, but their spree is complicated by the increasing pressure of the Melbourne police and the arrival of 17-year old nephew, J (James Frecheville). As J gets more involved in Pope's violent activities, the body count starts to increase and the young man must ask himself just how far his family, especially his cold-blooded grandmother "Smurf" (Jacki Weaver), will go to keep their secrets.

"Animal Kingdom" helped launch the careers of character actor Ben Mendelsohn and Jacki Weaver, even earning Weaver an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress (via IMDb). The movie also inspired a successful TNT television adaptation that started airing in 2016, and stars Ellen Barkin as Smurf, Shawn Hatosy as Pope, and Finn Cole as J.

But even if you're a longtime fan of the movie or are familiar with the show, you may not know about the actual Australian crime family that inspired the story.

A real Melbourne crime family directly inspired Animal Kingdom

The exploits of the Cody family in "Animal Kingdom" are largely based on the notorious Pettingills, based in Melbourne, Australia (via The Guardian). Like the crooks in the movie, the Pettingill family was dominated by the matriarch, Kath Pettingill. Michôd noted that while many criminal women in Australia "tend to be quite grizzled, old, weatherbeaten ladies," he intentionally wrote Smurf as a more optimistic character so that her manipulations would be that much scarier (via The Guardian). 

Similarly, the Walsh Street Shootings, where Pettingill member Victor Peirce was suspected of organizing the deaths of two police officers in retaliation for the killing of his friends, became a part of the plot of "Animal Kingdom" too — though arguably adapted to a smaller cast and story (via The Age).

Ultimately, what compelled Michôd to make the film Quentin Tarantino called one of the best of 2010 (via The Hollywood Reporter) was not just the Pettingill family, but the violent energy of the Melbourne criminal underground itself. The director commented that growing up, the city was "like an era that didn't exist any more: a very serious antagonism between old-school hardened bandits and old-school coppers" (via The Guardian). No wonder such a frightening and compelling story came out of that background.