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FILM REVIEW: Animal Kingdom

4th March 2011

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The description “Australian crime drama” comes with a host of unwelcome connotations. Australia isn’t exactly a country renowned for its cinematic output, and the family crime drama has been dead since Tony Soprano stopped halfway thr-

Animal KingdomBut like several films from the Antipodes before it, if it makes it this far it’s definitely worth a look, and it breathes new life into an old genre with a different perspective. Animal Kingdom follows seventeen year old J (James Frecheville), who after losing his mother to a heroin overdose is forced to live with the criminal family his mother had tried to keep him away from all his life. Welcomed in by his grandmother and family matriarch, Smurf (Jacki Weaver), and his bank-robbing, drug-dealing uncles, J (and the audience) is lead softly by the hand into the Melbourne underworld, where despite their shady dealings the bonds of family run strong and keep him safe. Things soon begin to unravel, however, with the family under pressure from the Armed Robbery Squad, killing with impunity, and with the arrival of eldest uncle, the quietly menacing Pope (Ben Mendelsohn). Paranoia sets in, and J learns that the number one rule isn’t necessarily Family Comes First, but Survival Of The Fittest, and that failure to adapt brings dire consequences.

Sounds pretty familiar, right? And indeed, the well-trodden crime archetypes are all present and correct – the Friend To Everybody, the Psycho, the Edgy Cokehead, the Corrupt Cops, the One Good Cop, all seen from the eyes of the New Kid. But the twist comes from a deftly measured hand from debut director/screenwriter David Michôd, who eschews flashy visuals or fast editing – or even depiction of any sort of heist – in favour of a tightly-wound character study. Unlike last year’s The Town, say, where the characters serve the plot and the situations drive the film, this story is populated by unpredictable characters who constantly keep you guessing, never knowing who to trust or to what extent; characters whose motivations and intentions shift tectonically, and that guiding hand becomes an ever tightening grip on the shoulder, becoming much less comfortable as the screws tighten.

And a film driven by character is only as good as its cast: luckily this is Animal Kingdom’s shining highlight, with not a dud performance in the whole ensemble. Frecheville gives a solid central performance as insular and reserved J. Seemingly impassive, the events controlling his life seem to wash over him without much action on his part. He is like all teenagers, as he describes, “Just doing what they’re doing.” But behind his inexpressive face an analytical mind gradually reveals itself as he quickly matures, figuring out his next move in this Darwinian world where only the strong survive, overruling even family ties, and choosing whether to align himself with his dangerous family, or trust the police offering him a way out, or simply run from it all and go it alone.

The greatest plaudits, though, have to be split between Mendehlson’s Pope and Weaver’s sweetly sinister Smurf. To describe in too much detail would result in more spoilers than we’re willing to give, but in a story full of duplicitous characters, it’s these two that wear their masks the closest, making it all the more compelling as the layers peel back.

Michôd’s direction and scripting is flawless. Audience expectation is flouted at every turn, never giving any easy answers through dialogue or even actor’s gesture. It may be jarring to some, but no mistakes have been made in the cut, and we are forced to stay in the moment to see how things will play out. Tension is ramped up all the more by the slow-burn pacing, and detached framing that echoes J’s apparently detached view. The title itself highlights the dramatic themes of survival in this unforgiving jungle, all interplaying and wrapping around each other to form a multi-layered masterclass in debut filmmaking.

Animal Kingdom is an unrelenting gut-punch of a film, pulling you in from the start and never letting go. The biggest crime is the oversight of its cast this awards season. Absolutely essential viewing.

Animal Kingdom is in cinemas now

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