David Michôd’s sensational directorial debut Animal Kingdom (2010) reinvigorated my faith that Australian cinema is capable of truly profound complexity. Michôd’s manipulation of the generic form creates a truly unique and fatalistic view of criminality and a sad portrait of a crime dynasty. For too long the Australian televisual landscape has been bombarded with these ‘inspired by true events’ narrative arcs that sensationalise crime and criminality the way that A Current Affair sensationalises the news. In this film the basis for the story broadly illustrates that it is cemented in a very specific series of events that took place in Melbourne some years ago – but – and there is an important but – who cares?!
There are so many more elements to discuss. The score is totally cinematic and operatic whilst being synthesized. Especially the sparse opening sequence during which Anthony Partos (the main musical contributor) evokes a sensory vibration that is entirely disarming.
This film easily has one of the most powerful opening stanzas of any genre film to date, as we watch the most accepting normalisation of drugs ingratiating themselves into our lives. A son is watching a television show with his mother (while also doing the dishes), until they’re not. His mother keels over and dies next to him. The intentional banality of the scene is something you cannot prepare yourself for. And Jacki Weaver’s bubbly yet caring entrance in light of the events announces her performance as a performance of the year and potentially the decade.
The tone of this film is perfectly pitched. It’s mania isn’t so pronounced that it is distracting, but totally unsettling how seamlessly it travels between what you would expect could be to divergent poles of the emotional spectrum. Each minute it traverses from an ominous expectation of extreme violence to a then a familial jibe. Michôd doesn’t allow any of the generic characters to be one dimensional, he changes their physical and mental terrain and you watch them wrestle with every interaction, they either attempt to assert their position and dominate or are confronted with (forgive the potential punning) a bigger animal that must be negotiated with or avoided.
Next, I’ll come to our protagonist and veritable outsider in Joshua ‘J’ Cody (James Frencheville). His unreliable and ineloquent personal narration is exceptionally effective in conveying nothing tangible about our protagonist. This technique (used most effectively in films like Apocalypse Now and The Thin Red Line) establishes only the most superficial elements of his character and the most basic introductory detail about the family. The great ambiguity of J is heightened because once he ingratiates himself into the family the narration dissipates. It is so refreshing to have a protagonist in a genre film that allows you to project yourself into what they’re experiencing and not tell how you should feel.
The players involved all deliver career best performances. Joel Edgerton’s Barry Brown has the charisma of blue collar John Dillinger. His presence anchors the Cody’s strange need to cannabilise each other. Ben Mendelsohn’s ‘Pope’, giving a freakishly malevolent performance, keeps the members of his family as an insulation between him and the world by constantly tormenting them. Luke Ford’s Darren feels like the most empathetic, normal character in the family and thereby is the most vulnerable to Pope. Ford retreats inward and amplifies Mendelsohn’s menace. Sullivan Stapleton’s performance as Craig feels as exciting as Russell Crowe’s performance in Romper Stomper. His wide eyed, coked out paranoia is as jarring and energetic as it is funny. Jacki Weaver the matriarch ‘Smurf’ Cody covers is a cute facade over a manipulative fox halfway between Nurse Ratchet (One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest) and Tony Soprano’s mother Livia. She’s incredible. Guy Pearce as Sgt. Nathan Leckie illustrates once again that he’s one of Australia’s most important actors. Despite the fact that his actual screen time is minimal, it holds such gravitas. He’s the film’s voice of reason and enlightens J in the darwinistic perspective that affirms the internal postulating of his early narration/internal monologue. Pearce’s Leckie is the ultimate realist in the film’s world because he’s studied in its wildlife.
The final scene of Animal Kingdom seems to be posing the question; “Is Australia inherently criminal?” It’s totally flooring and unbelievably ambiguous. The reactions are so authentic and tangible. In this moment he gives us a conclusion, but what I feel is half a conclusion. Michôd’s choice of protagonist and decision to sculpture his performance to not project an easily definable or two-dimensional reaction to any of the events that surround him throughout, but instead to decidedly make the viewer work for how they should feel to what’s being presented.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: David Michôd
Written by: David Michôd
Starring: James Frecheville, Jacki Weaver, Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton, Mirrah Foulkes, Ben Mendelsohn, Guy Pearce, Dan Wyllie
James Frecheville … Joshua ‘J’ Cody
Jacki Weaver … Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody
Joel Edgerton … Barry ‘Baz’ Brown
Luke Ford … Darren Cody
Sullivan Stapleton … Craig Cody
Mirrah Foulkes … Catherine Brown
Ben Mendelsohn … Andrew ‘Pope’ Cody
Guy Pearce … Detective Senior Sgt Nathan Leckie
Dan Wyllie … Ezra White