Animal Kingdom (2010) dir. David Michôd
Starring: James Frecheville, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn, Jacki Weaver
By Alan Bacchus
This is the second time seeing Animal Kingdom, now on DVD/Blu, over a year since I first saw it in Sundance. It was a special screening, an inspiring Aussie crime film made with the same auteur-like precision as Michael Mann and Paul Thomas Anderson. Second time round, it feels like a slightly different picture, a slower paced, meditative crime film, but no less enjoyable. It's still not a masterpiece, but an indication that one or two masterpieces will come from this new director.
Director Michôd wears his influences proudly on his sleeve, the aforementioned Mann and Anderson and even the new crime epic from Jacques Audiard, “A Prophet“. “Animal Kingdom” is an Aussie crime tour de force of its own, an elegant saga worthy of the same breath as these filmmakers and their own great films.
James Frecheville is Joshua ‘J’ Cody, Michod’s Henry Hill, or Michael Corleone or Malik from “A Prophet“, who enters the film wet behind the ears and exits the film a stone cold killer. We first see him watching Aussie game shows on TV while his overdosed mother lies dead on the couch. With nowhere to go he calls up his grandmother to ask what to do. And so J joins up with his estranged family of criminals, who up until then had been kept separate from him by his mother. There are his three uncles, including Baz (Joel Edgerton), the paternal leader, and the lady MacBeth mother of the group J’s grandmother (Jacki Weaver). Later, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) the most wanted and dangerous member of the family arrives and plots vengeance against the police Armed Robbery Squad which has instigated an all out bloody war against the family.
Though we’re in present day Melbourne, Michôd crafts his world like the lawless west. J, the innocent, is thrown into the deep end of a precarious band of thieves. Under the leadership of Baz, the group is a disciplined family unit, under Pope’s command, he’s like Sonny Corleone leading the family into doom. J’s torn allegiances remind us of Clint Eastwood playing both sides of the gang war in A Fistful of Dollars.
As a first feature Michôd is clear to project his own cinematic style. His character-work seems to channel the films of Michael Mann. His portrayal of his characters as family members first and criminals second has the same natural realism Mann adds to his genre pictures. Even Michôd’s sound work and musical score is reminiscent of Mann’s ambient atmospheric soundscapes. Like Mann, Michôd's music overlaps and bridges scenes an effect which keeps the characters closely tied together.
He would appear to be a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, who like PTA, is not ashamed to slow down and admire his own work. Michôd consciously lingers closely on his best shots, emphasizing the most minor of moments for heightened dramatic effect. At one point his camera moves around to reveal Pope ogling J’s girlfriend sleeping on the couch. The ironic Air Supply song which plays in the background has no real motivation being there, yet it works as the same kind of dramatic counterpoint as PTA’s firecraker scene set to Sister Christian in ‘Boogie Nights’.
Admirably Michôd props up his admittedly thin narrative for the first two thirds with these extravagances. Under less capable hands these moments would reek of overindulgence, but Michôd's tone is consistently on the mark and thus we can appreciate these cinematic expressions as tools of a great auteur filmmaker.
The characterization of J as a naive teenager, mouth-agape and detached from everything around him is never reconciled. It's the biggest crutch on the film. This aloofness conflicts with the big picture stakes and quells any intensity which is badly needed in the third act. After attending Sundance for the past three year, the problem of pacing always seems to be common denominator with first features. Recently I keep going back to David O Russell's The Fighter when referencing pace, a terrific film which has ebbs and flows in dramatic intensity, comedy, and tragedy - Animal Kingdom has one note (albeit a terrific, pitch perfect note), but something which experience and maturity will correct.
Animal Kingdom is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from EOne Entertainment in Canada