Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Film #21 Animal Kingdom

I've been looking forward to this one - so much so that I took a trip to a different multiplex (albeit part of the same chain as my local) to see it. What you need to know:

1. It's an Australian production, set in Melbourne
2. It's about criminals
3. It has been hotly anticipated by critics
4. It's director David Michod's first feature-film
5. It's got Guy Pearce in it

More? OK - subtitled 'A Crime Story', it's really a family story in which the family happen to be criminals. Set in more-or-less the present, it centres on the induction of Joshua 'J' Cody (James Frecheville) into his bank-robbing family following the death of his mother by heroin overdose. Taking him in are his grandmother, Janine (Jacki Weaver, Oscar-nominated) and her dangerous sons including loose cannon Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and sociopath Pope (Ben Mendelsohn, brilliant). As the family undergoes a series of upheavals and J gets pulled deeper into the criminality he finds himself torn between family and morality. As noted above, Guy Pearce co-stars as the good-hearted detective Leckie, valiantly attempting to bring balance to J's life.

Well, this is good. Really good. Excellent in fact, maybe even brilliant. The story itself - rooted in truth but mostly fictional - is superbly judged. The pacing is perfect (testament to both the script and the editing) and the dialogue is realistic, often horrifying, often funny (and how many gangster films name-check Muttiah Muralitharan?) but always necessary - it's a Robert McKee-esque masterclass in screenwriting.

The acting, too, is fab. It seems unfair to single out individual performers, but as has been noted elsewhere, Ben Mendelsohn's turn is particularly good as a kind of anti-Joe Pesci or low-key Don Logan: genuinely believable as a dangerous sociopath in spite of his slovenly appearance and small stature. I also especially liked Daniel Wyllie as sleazeball lawyer Ezra. Moustachioed Guy Pearce is typically fine, Jacki Weaver thoroughly deserves her Academy Award nomination and James Frecheville is now no doubt bound for glory.

From the start, J is a blank canvas, with a glazed expression that is two-parts gormless teenager to one part banjo-hammering Deliverance savant. As he joins the troubled family, they lose a settling superego-like presence, leaving the animalistic id - in the form of Pope - free to reign supreme. Michod is asking some timeless questions here about loyalty, blood being thicker than water (for some family members, that depends entirely on the circumstances) and the limits of forgiveness. It's more atavistic than omerta - this is real family business.

Another key theme is the mundanity of evil. Crime is not glamorous here (it barely even pays), rather it is grubby, seedy, violent, stupid and desparate. We get a good look at the impact that these criminals can have on unsuspecting civilians, indeed all of the violence is cleverly given just the right amount of context in order that the audience genuinely feels its impact too.

The score is elegaic and sinister, contrasting with the frivolous honky-rock that anyone who's travelled with Australians will know is horrifyingly ubiquitous down under. Michod uses it sparingly, often only leaving diagetic sound at significant moments, underlying the seriousness and refusing to give the criminal activities any kind of Godfather-style operatic connotations. No Cavelleria Rusticana for these mobsters - their wrongdoing is more likely sountracked by Deal or No Deal on the TV in the background.

An extraordinary achievement then, and all the more extraordinary for being a debut (though it has to be said that Michod is hardly a greenhorn, being both a film school graduate and a former editor of Australia's trade journal Inside Film). It will inevitably be compared to films like City of God and Mean Streets, though it is as good as the former and better than the latter.

Best film of the year so far:



  1. The most over-rated film of the year so far. The mundanity of evil? More like the incredible stupidity of the criminals. For supposedly sly outlaws, the family members seem rather dense and make mistake after mistake - Pope doesn't even tell J to keep his mouth shut when he's about to be questioned by the police. Far from making them more realistic, this makes the gang seem rather cartoon-like. I can't imagine any similar group acting with such an absence of low animal cunning.
    Also, J's character simply doesn't evolve - he's an emotional blank throughout - does he even show a flicker of joy when with his girlfriend? There's no growth here, which would have made his eventual loss truly moving. Janine, with the exception of a five minute spell, has similar emotional limitations.
    Ultimately, I can't help thinking that the lack of emotional realism is the result of the writer's inexperience. Great film? Not even close.

  2. I don't know what the guy above me is talking about, I thought this movie was absolutely incredible. Lack of emotional realism? Give me a break! Pfft.

    For me, the highlight of the film was Jackie Weaver's bone chilling performance. It's up there with the greatest supporting performances of all time IMO.

    I love your reviews :)