Starring: James Frecheville, Jacki Weaver, Guy Pearce, Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton, Ben Mendelsohn, Mirrah Foulkes, Justin Rosniak
Director: David Michod
Writer: David Michod
Cinematography: Adam Arkapaw
Original Score: Antony Partos
Running Time: 113 Mins.
The gangster film/crime drama has fallen to disrepute of late with the wave of comic attempts brought on by Guy Ritchie and his ilk, great in their original form, that have been milked to death by the likes of Tammer Hassan and Danny Dyer…yes this was a largely British soiling of a once great genre. So who should come along to inject some much-needed life, and fundamentally a new spin, to an ailing beast…Australia no less, admittedly Ben Affleck offered us something special in last years The Town but it is in Animal Kingdom that a real freshness has been found, something beyond skilfulness and enjoyment, indeed a truly shocking film that is not gritty in a Mike Leigh pretentious way but in a way that really adds to the heft of an already hard-hitting debut for director and writer Michod.
It seems somewhat unfair that amidst all the Oscar chat Animal Kingdom has been largely overlooked, save for nods to Jackie Weaver (thoroughly well-earned I might add) this is a film that seems to have escaped voters grasp sadly meaning it will have to settle for hopefully becoming a cult gem. That said in the film’s opening beats I really did have my doubts as to what all the critical hype was about, the story begins as we see Joshua, “J”, have to deal with the death of his mother from a heroin overdose, from this we know she was no angel herself but has kept “J” away from her mother and siblings all of his life in the hope that he won’t be caught up in their criminal lifestyles which include drug dealing with Craig (Stapleton), armed robbery with “Baz” (Edgerton) and most dangerous of all eldest brother Pope and his cop-killing tendencies. All of this is overseen by their loving mother “Smurf” (Weaver), who lives only for the love of her boys it seems, regardless of the cost.
Suffice to say “J” does find himself caught in the crossfire between the family and the largely corrupt cops led by Guy Pearce’s Leckie (who seems to be clean but you’re never quite sure), both sides vie for “J’s” loyalty, and the question of where he will turn is always at the forefront. Though as I said gripping as this sounds Frecheville as “J” begins the film seeming vacant, and more cripplingly wooden, unable to act even though give it time for this one is a slow burner, as the story unfurls Frecheville shows layers beneath the vacant exterior, layers which do not really help endear us to him as a character though our sympathy is never at question, he is seemingly the only “innocent amidst the cops and robbers…the question is which way will he turn?
Gripping a scenario as this is, what makes Animal Kingdom is the realism on display, violence happens in quick flurries and is over as quickly as it began packing every gunshot with real emotional gut punches, similarly the actions of characters are as sporadic, most evident in the brothers, some of whom sadly (and surprisingly) don’t get very far through the film leaving it to Mendelsohn as Pope to craft out his place in film history as a psychotic presence capable of the kind of acts that Joe Pesci was in Goodfellas, yet making it seem much more real as this is hidden beneath a creepy calm exterior…you really are never quite sure what he is capable of or what he will do, and every time he is onscreen the tension is palpable.
In the end though the real shock comes from Weaver who earns every bit of that oscar nomination, Smurf is a real Lady Macbeth figure who will stop at nothing to save her boys, or at least those that are left come the finale. There is the aching feeling that she may just have got away with it but for the fact that no-one in Animal Kingdom comes away clean, and the question as to who the real King of the jungle is left hanging on a knifes edge.
Animal Kingdom is a truly great crime saga, weaving through the lives of a deeply disturbing family aesthetic there is barely a character here who isn’t deeply flawed and it is in this that it carves so close to the bone, these are real people living real and unsettling lives. Very few films hit this hard and leave you mulling over them for days, a sure sign of expert film-making.