DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Animal Kingdom (Greg's review)

Friday 13 August 2010

Animal Kingdom (Greg's review)

Animal Kingdom (2010) dir. David Michôd
Starring: James Frecheville, Jacki Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, Sullivan Stapleton, Luke Ford and Guy Pearce


By Greg Klymkiw

Here's the recipe for this stunning (though flawed) new crime picture: Goodfellas (on lithium), with a few dashes of Mean Streets and Who's That Knocking At My Door?, a whole lotta Bloody Mama (sans Shelley Winters and re-imagined in a contemporary Melbourne), a poker face to rival Buster Keaton (in the form of brilliant lead actor James Frecheville), and, given its setting, cool wall-to-wall Aussie accents.

It's a fine recipe and the end result goes down real good. In fact, this might be one of the best crime pictures I've seen in quite awhile. It grabs you by the testes (or, for those without 'em, the klafte) and it seldom lets go.

We're introduced to young Josh (the aforementioned Frecheville) who blankly watches television as his Mom, stone cold dead from a heroin overdose, is piled into an ambulance. Not quite knowing what to do, he telephones his Grandmother, the insanely nicknamed - I kid you not - Smurf (Jacki Weaver). Josh's late Mom made a conscious decision to shelter him, and quite possibly herself, from Mama Smurf and her mad sons - they're criminals: cheap, petty and violent.

Young Josh has, no doubt, inspired his heroin-infused Mom's corpse to churn eternally in her grave as he gradually begins to ease into his "new" family and their "business" quite nicely. Smurf's sonny-jims include the handsome, brutal, overtly magma-headed Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), the quiet reluctant criminal Darren (Luke Ford) and the undeniably charismatic and thoroughly bonkers Pope (Ben Mendelsohn). Pope is especially dangerous. He refuses to take his meds and because of this, he's no stereotypical nutter, but the kind who seems almost sane - "almost" being the operative word.

Things slowly and creepily unravel for this family that loves crime even more than each other. Against the banal backdrop of their middle class surroundings and aspirations, things don't rush to an inevitable conclusion, they crawl - inch by inch by inch. The pacing and tone of the picture is so strangely, uniquely measured, it's a shame that the engrossing narrative eventually leads to a series of cliched double-crosses and revenge.

In spite of the failings of the narrative (which is not bad, just a bit too familiar and predictable) director David Michôd is clearly a born filmmaker. As much of the movie takes place within the drab middle class home of the criminals, his shot compositions are endlessly exquisite and his blocking of the action is first-rate. There isn't a single bad performance in the whole picture (though Guy Pearce as a cop seems a touch uncomfortable in role) and the astounding revelation is just how great an actress Jacki Weaver is. Granted, she is a stalwart of Australian cinema, but her performance here is so deliciously smarmy and alternately loving that she will surely be a contender for a myriad of acting awards.

According to Princeton University's online lexical database of English, the definition of "animal kingdom" is a "taxonomic kingdom comprising all living or extinct animals". This, of course, is one of the many reasons the picture is so good, Its exploration of a crime family in a careful, measured fashion is not unlike classifying a particular species and its daily habits. This is done so well for the first two-thirds of the picture, one can almost forgive its narrative shortcomings in the last third.

Animal Kingdom isn't a perfect descent into petty crime, but it's a compelling one.

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