In the opening scene of David Michod’s Australian crime saga, Animal Kingdom, a Melbourne teenager named J (James Frecheville) sits stone-faced and clueless after his mom dies from a drug overdose. After the police drag the body away, he calls up the only person he knows will come through for him, his previously estranged but all too willing to reconnect grandmother, Janine (Jacki Weaver in a performance that deserves awards’ buzz). Janine just happens to be the proud and perky lioness ruling a family of small time bank-robbers and drug-dealers. The eldest, “Pope” (Ben Mendelsohn) is a loose cannon on the cops’ most-wanted list. J quickly gets caught up in the middle of a mess after the cops take out a family friend resulting in a gangland retaliation, and a detective (Guy Pearce) becomes determined to use the impressionable J against his uncles.
Michod weaves an intermittently compelling tale that is part coming-of-age story and part mob flick spun Down Under. His framing and mise-en-scene is technically sound but sometimes too self-conscious, and the slow-paced editing makes the film seem longer than it is and hinders some of the drama. There are a few scenes that flirt with brilliance, including a menacing slow take involving “Pope” leering at J’s sleeping girlfriend while Air Supply’s “I’m All out of Love” plays on the television and a later scene featuring J finally showing some emotion while quietly panicking and contemplating his fate in the bathroom. However, the deliberate “look, Mom, I’m not going to be flashy and exploitatively violent like other mob flicks” style sucks much of the suspense out of chase scenes and showdowns. Hopefully with some refining in future films, Michod’s well-studied method could mature from being overt and labored to subtle and smooth.
There’s a great epic and brooding “gritty sound design” music score from Antony Partos, and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw makes the most of the Melbourne setting. Michod clearly assembled the goods and the film benefits greatly from the uniformly fine cast. However, the script is marred by some nagging curiosities that prevent the whole from equaling the sum of the parts. Early on, it’s never made clear why the cops take out the family friend instead of bringing him in for questioning, and there are other characters (for instance, J’s girlfriend) who are criminally underwritten and too many characters do too many rash things that don’t always make sense and seem to only serve to further the plot along. There are also times where Jacki Weaver’s sweet-talkin’ and meddlin’ momma is so scheming, maniacal and fascinating to watch, you wish Michod had made more of the film focus on her character’s motives.
For a film that arrives Stateside at the end of summer, Animal Kingdom is good enough to offer respite from the typical mindless fare this time of year. However, earlier in the year, the Aussie noir, The Square, was more effortlessly entertaining. While that film looked at ordinary people’s’ lives spiraling out of control after bad decisions, Michod’s film looks at bad people who lead lives that spiraled out of control a long time ago trying to achieve some normalcy.
With a memorable performance from Jacki Weaver and some buzz-worthy standout scenes, Animal Kingdom roars in art-houses a bit over-hyped. If you go in expecting it to be the Australian answer to The Sopranos, just be sure you are prepared for one of the more strained and frustrating episodes.
Written by David H. Schleicher