Animal Kingdom (2010) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
20Jan/111

Animal Kingdom (2010)

ANDREW LIKENow here's something I can sink my teeth into and given the thesis of Animal Kingdom that seems highly appropriate.  It's another meaty, grungy, highly stylized noir from Australia (where, between this and The Square, seems to be becoming a fertile ground for noir).  Both wear their influences proudly on their shoulders but take them to brutal corners that their predecessors had not.

Animal Kingdom sets up the world with a neat opening scene.  Joshua "J" Cody (James Frecheville) is sitting at home with his unconscious mother watching Deal Or No Deal on the telly.  He's zoned out and nearly oblivious to the EMTs that show up and ask what's wrong with his mom to which he simply replies "Overdose.  Heroin"  This is a kid that is so numb to the effects of the drug that he barely bats an eye when his own mother dies.

So J calls his grandmother Janine "Smurf" (Jacki Weaver) for help.  Their family is involved in quite a few dirty dealings and based on their conversation it's entirely plausible that Smurf was responsible for giving her daughter the heroin she overdosed on.  Regardless, she has a lot of affection for her grandchildren (sneaking a few kisses from them here and there).  She takes J in where he rooms with his other brothers the dope dealing Andrew "Pope" (Ben Mendelsohn), the violent Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), and the hapless Darren (Luke Ford).  They're all under investigation by Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce) for the crimes that they barely bother to hide, but don't leave enough for Leckie to arrest them with.

The cops may not be as dirty as the family, but it's not for lack of trying.

The title comes from the pecking order that is established and reestablished over the course of the film.  This family is Darwinist to the core and J is clearly at the bottom when he arrives.  This point is creepily made in a scene where he's asked to point a gun at a local punk after the punk smart mouthed Craig.  But there are two important factors at play; evolution means that J can grow beyond his currently limited self and there's a bit of a power struggle up top.  Everyone looks up to Smurf for comfort and advice but Pope is the one they speak to when forming plans and assigning duties.  She gets by through a vicious streak of manipulation hidden by her sweetness.  He gets by through careful observation and knowing when to play a strong hand.  Both know that J has become key to making or breaking the family.

Like the best noirs, there isn't a single innocent soul in Animal Kingdom.  The police have gotten to the point where posturing isn't enough and take direct action against the family.  The method of which I'll leave you to discover, but the family's retaliatory decisions take a certain form of twisted justice given the circumstances.  As lines are slowly drawn a low growl slowly takes over the soundtrack at key points as J decides where he wants his place in the pecking order to be.  A decision made more complicated as the body count grows and suspicions of betrayal start to infect the family.

That's merely the set up, expertly handled within the first 20 minutes of the movie.  It's to the films credit that we're given a fairly large amount of information about the family and their history in town without it A) Being spelled out, B) Feeling like needless exposition and C) Keeping the film at a brisk pace.  I was never lost watching Animal Kingdom and was constantly intrigued by the family's twisted morality and decision making process.  I also enjoyed the look and feel of the city, which throbbed with it's down dark light (much like an urban accompaniment to the landscape of Winter's Bone).

Director David Michod wisely keeps the family in a bubble of sorts.  The real intrusions come from the police and we never really see the effects the family has on their community.  When the tragedies do come they feel as though they are coming at a high price instead of just another day of business and with the cast the Michod has assembled he makes the most out of their considerable talents.

Weaver also deploys a chilling smile when it suits the situation.

The two standouts are Jacki Weaver and Ben Mendelsohn as the dueling leaders of the family.  Weaver delivers every line in the film with a delightful undercurrent of danger if her simple requests aren't met.  Mendelsohn is a worthy equal by showing Pope ever so slightly terrorizing his family in just the right way.  They're tasty roles and played with just enough subtlety by both of them to show exactly how dangerous J's situation is.

This brings us to the only real weak spot of the film - James Frecheville's performance as J.  It's not that he's bad in the role exactly, but he's passive to the point where we doubt he has any real agency in the world.  It's partly the way he is written, and that makes sense, but J is supposed to be the "normal" one in the family and shows less emotion than anyone else.  Even when he's in danger he has the same flat facial expression and vocal intonation.  Alas, it's just not an interesting performance and the fact that he has voice over duties just reminds us of this many times throughout the film.

This is a very stellar crime film from a country that seems to be churning them out at a terrific speed.  This is David Michod's first film and it's very much in the Scorsese vein of directing (especially with the way Michod uses the soundtrack) which isn't bad company to be in.  I'm looking forward to more great work from you Mr. Michod.

Animal Kingdom (2010)
Written and Directed by David Michod.
Starring  James Frecheville, Jacki Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn and Guy Pearce.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. I had heard the title before but never had any clue what the movie was, I will definitely have to check it out, sounds like a perfect film for me.


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