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
I read about this film on my Film noir Google feed…and after reading your review of this film…I’am already slightly, disappointed…Once again, thanks, for being the bearer of the…Truth!
By the way, have you read any buzz about Aronofsky’s (Sp) The Black Swan yet?
DeeDee, I’ve seen the trailer for Black Swan…that’s about it so far. –DHS
I was mildly intrigued with this when I saw the trailer though “The Square” looks better, neither of which I have had a chance to see yet. I’ll take in “Animal Kingdom” though your words of caution are appreciated. I get nervous when I head almost unanimous praise for any movie. Thanks for a perceptive and well argued review.
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the film…both films actually. –DHS
Well, as I prepare my MMD, I am again amazed how my check-ins at this site always yield some weekly viewing similarities. We have some similar expectations David! I saw this film last night with Lucille at the Landmark Cinemas at 9:55 P.M. after an earlier screening of the Peruvian THE MILK OF SORROW at the Cinema Village. I thought the Peruvian film fairly-good, but also frustrating, but I was absolutely riveted with ANIMAL KINGDOM. Yeah, the Australian dialect was not always easy to navigate, but there were some stunning set piece, a buffo ending, some great psychological underpinnings, and as you note that great score from Partos, and the excellent Melbourne settings. For me it’s a contender for the years Ten Best list so far, and quite a bit better than your own judgement. But hey, I fully respect your position, and could see why this film (much like THE SQUARE released last year stateside) might be seen as a convoluted mess.
Sam – I didn’t find The Square to be too convoluted (convolutions are inherent to such melodramas), though looking back on both films, they did share a similar “in medias res” aspect that allowed some plot holes to be glided over. I suppose my reactions to both films were influenced by my expectations — The Square I expected little and was wickedly entertained (and loved Claire Van Der Boom), while Animal Kingdom I had very high expectations and was frustrated by some things. Both are solid entries though. –DHS