Animal Kingdom' (2010) dir. David Michôd
Starring: Joel Edgerton, James Frecheville, Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn
By Reece Crothers
Though it loses some of it's magic for a too long in the second half half of the picture, the debut feature from Australian writer/director David Michôd earns much of it's star rating from the spell cast by the early scenes which feature a brood of criminals living in the suburbs like something out of the wild west, the James gang plucked out of history and dropped into modern life. Animal Kingdom is the story of the Cody family's demise through the eyes of it's most estranged member, played by newcomer James Frecheville. The Darwin metaphor is self-explanatory.
Frecheville is 'J' whose junkie mother has overdosed and died and left the teen with nowhere else to go. He calls his grandmother, Janine, and we get the sense that they have been apart for a very long time. But Janine is sweet and will take 'J' in. And so we meet the rest of the family. There is Jackie Weaver (from Peter Weir's Picnic At Hanging Rock) giving a beautifully nuanced performance as matriarch Janine, and her two hunky scruffy sons Barry (played by Joel Edgerton from "The Square") and Craig (Sullivan Stapleton from TVs "Neighbours"). We also meet Jackie's youngest boy Darren, (Luke Ford - a movie star name if ever there was one) who is so close to 'J's age that he instructs him not to call him "uncle" Darren because it creeps him out. Barry is the de-facto man of the house and has a beautiful wife, seems to be looking out for everybody and will look out for 'J' too. We wonder how a family like this could have grown apart, though there is a red flag when grandma Janine seems to enjoy kissing her sons in greeting a little too much, but for a moment it seems like 'J' has found the stable family that he has been missing his whole life. It is a world apart from living in motels with his junkie mom.
Then we meet Jackie's eldest boy, Andrew, nicknamed "Pope", and the crack in the facade shatters completely. Did I forget to mention that the family robs banks? They're like the family version of the Ex-Presidents from Point Break - charismatic, sexy, and dangerous. Pope is a psychopath, wonderfully underplayed by Ben Mendelsohn. It is the kind of character that attracts the worst of over-acting, but neither the finely drawn script, or the subtle direction, or Mendelsohn's quiet authoritative performance hits a wrong note here.
It is the ordinary presentation of the world and the character's in it that makes the film feel so gritty. It feels real. Where the director applies the greatest amount of stylization is in the atmospheric sound design. The film sounds great. The attention to audio detail here reminds me of Paul Thomas Anderson's movies, and much like that filmmaker's debut, "Sydney" (or "Hard Eight" as it was renamed by the studio), the film feels like it is announcing a great director who is still finding his voice. The film is so good that you want it to be great. But there is a major structural problem that I cannot reveal without spoiling the plot. I think the writer/director outsmarted himself.
Because it is the story of a family's demise, characters start dying. I don't want to say who, but I will say that when the carnage starts it actually made me jump in my seat. Few films do that anymore. The problem is the second half of the picture starts to feel a little empty. You start to miss characters who aren't around anymore. I like passive protagonists so long as they are surrounded by more outrageous companions. Like Ewan McGregor's Renton in "Trainspotting", who is much less active a character than say, Begbie, or Sickboy, or even Spud. Their quiet, observer character give us an anchor in their universes. Take away Begbie, Sickboy and Spud and Renton is a real bore. As is the case here. Without the dynamic characters surrounding him, whether because they've been killed, or arrested, or he has simply alienated himself from them in other ways I don't want to give away, Frecheville's character's passivity started to wear me down and for a few minutes I was checking my watch. But not for long. The picture has a terrific ending.
If it's not exactly a classic, it is a very good picture, a worthy entry into the crime genre canon - a stylish, serious, drama about as good as Sean Penn's 1990 Irish-mob-in-New-York flick, "State Of Grace", and offers the promise that Michôd's next next film might just be a "Boogie Nights".