Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Review: Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom
Dir. David Michôd
Year: 2010
Aus Rating: MA15+
Running Time: 112mins

Australians love a good crime drama. Hell, judging from the TV ratings they love even bad crime dramas, crime documentaries, crime comedies, crime anything as long as it features people getting themselves in too deep with drugs, violence, sex or the inability to drive properly. And yet crime seems to only pay on the small screen, what with big locally made hits such as Underbelly, Border Patrol and City Homicide sitting pretty alongside international fare like Bones and Midsummer Murders at the top of the ratings heard. Give audiences a body - or, preferably, an ever-increasing pile of them - and they're on board.

For some reason, this predilection to crime hasn't jumped to the big screen in any major way, until now, with David Michôd's debut feature Animal Kingdom. Sure, Matthew Saville ventured there with Noise (the second best Aussie film of the last decade) sort of went there, but not to the level of Animal Kingdom. Lazy people - such as myself, I admit - will describe it as "Underbelly on the big screen" and they're not too far off the mark if you mean a slickly produced, invigorating product featuring a bevy of talented acting heavyweights of the Australian acting industry.

Set in Melbourne, Animal Kingdom begins with teenager Joshua "J" Cody (James Frencheville) being moved to live his grandmother (Jacki Weaver) after the death of his single mother. The mother who had intentionally sheltered J from the life of his grandmother and uncles. He soon becomes indoctrinated into the family business of armed robbery and drugs. The young and easily influenced J is quickly pounced upon by police Senior Sergeant Leckie (Guy Pearce) and is caught between his family and the law. Michôd's screenplay is such a fine, solid base and yet it weaves unexpected sidetracks alongside the intricate plot. Michôd has a knack for dialogue here and each character has such a strong, defined persona, which is something that a lot of films tend to lack. These characters live and breathe, and feel as if they have been for decades.

The movie is impeccably made from a technical standpoint with Adam Arkapaw's cinematography looking so crisp, there are several shots worthy of art. The sound work was, I found, particularly note worthy as was the editing by Luke Doolan who manages to wring so much tension and shock, especially during one scene in which Clayton Jacobson reverses out of his garage. Sounds simply, you will understand when you see it, but it walks such a delicate line of nail-biting suspense. Impressive too is the wonderful cast that Michôd has assembled. Perhaps Ben Mendelsohn is miscast as the elderly brother Pope, and perhaps Frencheville has some strange character traits that are hard to define (is he autistic?), but Joel Edgerton is excellent in a role that I am sure many will spoil, but I will do no such thing. Luke Ford, the brother from The Black Balloon, impresses in what is probably the weakest character while Sullivan Stapleton, Susan Prior and Laura Wheelhouse provide great support too.

The performance of the film, however, is Australian acting legend Jacki Weaver. Instantly recalling recent towering performances by the likes of Mo'Nique, Weaver spends much of the film's first half being quietly creepy and, at times, even gothic, but she proves to be merely biding her time before unleashing a flood of evil in scene after scene leading up to the film's haunting conclusion. The way her lips curl as she tries to keep a motherly smile on her face as she extorts, blackmails and manipulates the walls that are crumbling around her is a sight to behold. It is sure to be remembered as one of the finest displays of acting ever committed to an Australian film.

Unfortunately, I do think that the character of J is what lets the film down during these final passages. His character, not necessarily Frencheville himself, feels messy towards the end and the way the character navigates the twists that the film has in store isn't done as cleanly as one would expect from this otherwise finely crafted film. Sure to become a definitive title of Australian film for what it's trying to - and mostly does - achieve, Animal Kingdom is a superb film that should once and for all get audiences excited about Australian cinema once again (even though they already should be). B+

Animal Kingdom is release 3 June, but I'll remind you about it so don't worry!


Anonymous said...

Do you think Weaver has a chance at a Best Supporting Actress nomination ? i think so :)

Glenn Dunks said...

It will be incredibly hard for her to be even considered as a long shot, but if it gets a decent release in America and then who knows? The critics could get behind it like, say, Amy Ryan in Gone Baby Gone and take it to places that nobody could've guessed.

Paul Martin said...

Have you read my review, Glenn? I think Animal Kingdom is one of the best 5 local films of the last two decades. Yes, it's right up there for me. It's everything that the first series of Underbelly would like to be but doesn't have the skill, intelligence or trust in audiences to even come within a mile of.

I disagree with you on Frecheville and consider his character one of the four character pillars of the film: J, Pope (Mendelsohn), Smurf (Weaver) and Det. Leckie (Pearce). Each of these characters is brilliantly defined and play critical roles in the film's successful execution. J has to be this way for reasons I don't want to divulge right now. He's the innocent, our tour guide into hell, not so different to the main character in A Prophet. His being withdrawn makes him an unknown quantity - that's the whole point.

For me, this is the performance of Mendelsohn's life. I forgot every mediocre film he's ever been in, every mediocre performance he's given and totally believed he was that character. I've tried to withold some of the details you've divulged about Weaver, but I suppose every film reviewer is going to do that and more. It was so nice to see the film without such details being out there. And Guy Pearce - we all know what he's capable of, the man's brilliant. The brilliance of Michôd (and I believe he is a truly exciting new player) is how constrained he was with his direction of Pearce. In fact, everything about the film is underplayed, muted, nuanced. The film is sensational without being sensational, if you get my drift.

Animal Kingdom, for me, excels in virtually every major area: direction, editing, acting, cinematography, sound, music and screenplay.

I agree with you about that driveway scene, perhaps my favourite scene in the film. The skills in telling a story are spine-tingling. My missus commented on how I was obsessed with the film for days after.

In case you're wondering, the other 4 top films of the last two decades for me are: Everynight, Everynight..., The Boys, Em 4 Jay and Samson and Delilah. So, other than S&D, I think this is the best local film in four years (since E4J).

If I have any gripe (and it's a small one), it's that the sequence of events during the legal process confused me a little. I'm not sure if it's because they weren't chronological or if I just didn't understand the sequence. I can't wait to see it again to work that out. But it's a film that one can easily watch again, don't you think?

BTW, I would have loved to have talked to you in more depth after the screening but as you know, we were both otherwise engaged.

And here's my review

Paul Martin said...

I forgot to mention that I also thought that Joel Edgerton and Sullivan Stapleton are excellent, even though I don't count them among the 'pillars'.

Glenn Dunks said...

I did read your review, Paul. Very good to hear you liked it so much. I'm still not so sure on Mendelsohn, maybe I need to revisit.

In regards to the sequence of events towards the end, it was my understanding that there were the events in the art gallery and then the hotel/courtroom moments in terms of chronology but that the art gallery scenes were spread out (Innaritu style if you want to be simplistic) and interspersed throughout the scenes of J with the cops in the hotel and heading to the courtroom to give it more impact as to what the character of J was doing. Does that make sense?

I should mention that I've only ever seen half of season one of Underbelly so my mentioning it isn't a sign of fandom.

Paul Martin said...

I'm unclear about some of the final bits so, no, what you said doesn't illuminate anything for me. As I said, I need to watch it again.

As for Underbelly, I've never been able to watch more than five minutes of it at a time. I find it has more in common with Video Hits (ie, tits and music, with bad editing).

Jem said...

Personally the courtroom sequence is a huge highlight - presenting what could have been a very familiar and pedestrian sequence which we've seen a million times before as something intriguing and new. It's really smart storytelling, I think. And the way it's edited together is excellent in that it gives you just enough information to go on and no more - sort of a Mamet-style 'I'm not going to slow down, so you better keep up' approach. Kudos then to eidtor Luke Doolan as well as Mr Michod.

Paul Martin said...

Jem, it's what I called no fat on the bone. I loved that it didn't draw out those court scenes and just showed us all we needed - very clever choices there.