Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Directed by David Michod

Starring James Frecheville, Ben Mendelsohn, Jacki Weaver

In both his narrative (Aguirre: The Wrath of God) and documentary (Grizzly Man) features revolving around nature, Werner Herzog presents the axiom that nature is cold, cruel, and incapable of emotion. As animals aren't sentient, they care not about such things as empathy and compassion, they only seek to perpetuate the survival of their species. Broken down even further, every family in each species seeks simply to fight for the survival of the clan. Outsiders are shunned, and if a member of the clan is wronged or a life in the clan ended, the head will do everything in his or her power to protect the rest.

Taking this general rule of wildlife on planet Earth and applying it to a family of Aussie thieves, first time feature filmmaker David Michod has crafted Animal Kingdom, one of the best crime dramas in recent memory, and a film that's incredibly intense, tight, and emotionally involving. There are parts of Animal Kingdom that will be very recognizable to anyone who has seen any of the many hundreds of crime-family centered films of the past few decades, but the whole of the movie adds up to something not quite seen before.

After his mother overdoses on heroin, stoic teenager Joshua (James Frecheville) contacts the only family he knows of: his grandmother Janine Cody (Jacki Weaver). It's been years since grandson and gram have seen each other, but she welcomes him into a side of the family he barely knows with a aspartame smile and open arms ready to pull him in and suffocate him, should he get out of line. Arriving at her house, Josh is reintroduced to his uncles, all criminals specializing in stealing things with weapons: Barry (Joel Edgerton) is the logical, strong-willed glue that keeps the brothers in line; Darren (Luke Ford) is the sensitive, unsure one; Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is the trigger-happy loose canon; finally, there's Andrew (Ben Mendolsohn), the semi-psychotic - scratch that - fully psychotic older brother, on the run from Melbourne's Armed Robbery police squad.

It's these early scenes in which Animal Kingdom seems poised to be just another by the numbers crime film. With the introduction of Craig - a character who does such cliched things as light up a cigarette in a non-smoking diner just to piss off the wait staff - I assumed I'd be able to predict every single beat the movie was going to hit. I couldn't have been more wrong.

The main action in Animal Kingdom kicks off when the aforementioned Armed Robbery squad, tired of failing to capture the wanted Andrew and suffering from budget cuts to the department, take matters into their own hands and decide to break up the family by taking out one of its members. This has the desired effect, as the remaining members of the Cody family exact revenge on the police force, and end up in the arms of the law with only Joshua standing between them and years behind prison bars.

Michod has chosen to shoot Animal Kingdom with that oft-used gritty, hand-held look. However, Animal Kingdom doesn't have the documentary feel of, say the recent Gomorrah. Instead, Michod and his cinematographer, Adam Arkapaw, have lit the film classically, giving it a very cinematic feel. Michod has made the right choice by not shooting the film as in-your-face and cinema-verite as others may have. Animal Kingdom knows it's a fictional drama, and one that intends to turn screws and tighten your chest with each passing minute.

And that it does, very, very well. Michod executes the film with a precision not usually seen in first time feature-film directors. By tweaking our expectations with every other scene, Michod ensures that we become fully involved in the drama taking place throughout Animal Kingdom. Sure there are recognizable and familiar aspects to almost every minute of the film, but the director has such a sure-handed way of playing with these aspects that we're never quite sure what's going to happen, and by the time we realize Josh's life is really in complete and utter danger, we feel just as scared as he does.

Of course, Michod gets quite a bit of help making sure things stay unpredictable with a stellar cast. Josh is, at his core, an annoyingly non-verbal weakling. He's the kind of kid you wish would become either enraged to the point of ridiculousness about something or completely over-joyed with it, no matter what it was, instead of just standing there, shoulders hunched, mute. As ingratiating as it would be to spend time with this person in real life, though, James Frecheville's performance is interesting to watch as the movie unfolds. Josh internalizes his emotions, and Frecheville is surprisingly good at showing his character's changes in little ways through facial expressions and eye movements.

Joel Edgerton as well gives quite a great performance as Barry. We're told that Barry is a bad-ass but never actually see it - that's okay, though, because Edgerton makes us believe it's so. There's an intensity behind his eyes and a confidence in his strut that exudes authority. But he's also warm and surprisingly kind. A man's man if there ever was one, Barry is the father you don't want to disappoint - not because he would knock you out with one left hook to the face (although he could), but because he would shame you with one look and a few admonishing words. Edgerton will be seen in the upcoming Warrior

Impressing the most, though, are Jacki Weaver and Ben Mendohlson. Weaver was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress award at this year's Academy Awards, and by all means she deserved it (the nomination, if not the award). Quite possibly the most dangerous person in the film, Janine comes across as the grandma you wish you had one moment, and the person you least want to be related to the next. And the attitude is changed with only a slight change of voice and a raise of an eyebrow. She's super-sweet and completely and utterly venomous.

Mendohlson almost single-handedly walks away with the film. At first coming across as slightly neurotic and shifty, Andrew evolves into a complete and total psycho by the end of the film. Not the kind of psycho that runs around stabbing nude girls in the shower, but the kind of guy who sends chills up your spine with just a look. It's a performance that makes a viewer antsy whenever the character is onscreen. Creepy and shockingly intense, Mendelsohn presents Andrew as an un-empathetic lunatic. It's great work.

I had a few issues with the way Animal Kingdom handles its third act - for all the complaining I do about films that need to be shorter, this one could benefit by actually being fifteen to twenty minutes longer. Some more time with Guy Pearce as a police detective would have been nice, and the film feels as if it's rushing towards the end just to end at a certain point in the film.

That nitpick aside, Animal Kingdom is a wonderful, engaging movie. Intense to the point of being cathartic (when the film ends it feels as if a load is being lifted off of your chest), it's a great first feature-length film from a very promising director.

NOTE: The trailer below is the only time Air Supply will ever be cool Ever.

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