Thursday, September 2, 2010

Review: Animal Kingdom

The short version is that writer/director David Michod's feature debut is an Australian answer to Goodfellas.
The long version is that Animal Kingdom is a lyrical, operatic, and beautifully brutal film about the unraveling of a Melbourne crime family, anchored by some brilliantly visceral performances.
The Codys are a family of bank robbers, mostly made up of adult children who've grown up in this life and know nothing else. We find the Cody clan as they grapple to stay one step ahead of the cops; the law in Melbourne has been driven to shooting gangsters unprovoked in broad day light in a desperate effort to clean up the city.
The family, in these waning days, consists of plucky, calculating matriarch 'Smurf' (charismatic Aussie vet Jackie Weaver, giving what might be the year's best performance) and her four grown, near-feral sons, who snarl and sun themselves like a pride of lions. The boys are given to fits of confused, frustrated rage as they feel the ravenous heat closing in on them, and a crushing paranoia settles on their psyches, particular that of 'Pope' (played with unsettling vulnerability by Ben Mendelsohn), the eldest and perhaps most vile.
The film begins with the estranged Cody sister dying of a heroin overdose, leaving her teenage son, Josh, with no place to go but into the care of his diabolically loving grandmother. Josh, or 'J', is clearly a reflection of what Smurf's sons once were, as they are a foreshadowing of what J might become if he follows in their lawless footsteps.
Played with constant restraint by newcomer James Frecheville, J provides provides us with a guide through the world of the film, but also presents its two main flaws. The teenager narrates for the first act or so to fill in some narrative gaps, but I didn't really find this necessary. It doesn't give us any essential information, and his delivery is crushingly monotone to the point of distraction. This brings me to the film's second flaw - Frecheville's performance itself. I can appreciate that J is meant to be an awkward, introverted kid and all, but the actor and director take it too far, and he just comes off as nearly comatose, which is not what you want, especially in a character that was so obviously added to the script in order to be an audience surrogate.
The boring protagonist aside, Animal Kingdom is an excellent film and a promising debut from young Aussie auteur Michod; the unique zeitgeist he evokes, and his virtuosic mastery of mood, tension, narrative momentum, indicate a cinematic master in the making.

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