Animal Kingdom is a slow burn with no way out

Animal Kingdom – 2010

Written and Directed by David Michôd

Starring Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver, James Frecheville, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton

There is a point in Animal Kingdom, where protagonist Joshua “J” Cody (Frecheville), in the bathroom of his girlfriend’s parents’ house, has finally pieced together what the fate of his family has cost him.  He breaks down, big time, totally losing control of his sobbing to the point that slobber is falling from his face in the most undignified fashion imaginable.  This takes place after a long, tumultuous period, starting with the overdose death of his mother, who actually sought to get him away from the influence of her family.

That influence reveals itself slowly.  His Grandmother, Janine (Weaver) meets him at the apartment, gives him a long, loving hug, and brings him back into the fold, after many years away.  From this point, we meet the rest of Joshua’s family, Uncles whose occupations range from armed robbery to drug dealing.  Joshua, as narrator, plaintively describes each of them as scared.  Each of the brothers handles the tension and fear in a different way.

The oldest, Pope (Mendelsohn) is

Baz heading towards his fate

more than a little unhinged in his paranoia.  Having been in hiding since the beginning of the tale, his return, encouraged by family friend Baz (Edgerton) to return to the fold and go straight is cut short by his friend’s death at the hands of crooked cops.

Those cops, part of a group lead by Detective Leckie (Pearce),  set off a tragic chain of events that will unravel the family almost completely.  Baz is avenged, in a way only small time crooks could envision, and then Leckie moves in, directly towards Josh, who, being youngest, he believes will crack first.  Josh holds up well, and in a normal crime family, that would be enough.  Pope, however, can’t accept a winning hand.

The acting in Animal Kingdom is first-rate.  Every death is felt with a magnitude I have not seen since Goodfellas.  Pearce wears such a menace, you can’t help but envision him as the most dangerous of all.  He has a cool grace about him that would seem inviting, were it not for his dead eyes.  Pearce has been exceptional for so long, however, his performance really was not a surprise.

The rest of the cast, all Australian, was stellar as well.  Mendolsohn has an unorthodox goofiness mixed with a dangerous fear.  It is a wonder anyone can feel like they could turn their back to him.  Not only do they not know what he is going to do next, but were pretty sure that he doesn’t know either.  Edgerton, Ford and Stapleton round out

Smurf loves her men completely.

the gang, filling their spots so completely that it is easy to understand why things fall completely apart the moment one of them is gone.

Weaver fully earned her Oscar nomination, as her Smurf is a mother so completely loving of her boys, that she will go to any lengths to protect them.  Her congenial callousness is astounding.  She will love you, even if she has to cut your heart out.  Quite unlike anything I have seen on film.

Pope: Everyone knows where this leads

The prize performance of the movie belongs to Frecheville.  Starting out the film in a manner that implied he might be suffering from a form of Asperger’s Syndrome, one realizes, quite slowly, that it is life that has pushed him into this state of walking catatonia.  His performance is so well augmented by the oppressive soundtrack that it is hard to distinguish which aspect made the other so exquisite.  I can say it is one of the performances I have seen from a young actor since Lucas Black in Sling Blade.

Anything but strong

The writing and direction by Michôd is seamless, assured and altogether quite remarkable for a début.  His message is so clear, he practically reveals his hand in the opening 15 minutes.  He then spends the subsequent 2 hours taking the story apart, brick by brick.  The result is clean, concise and fascinating.  I look forward to his future work in cinema.

This film is a must for those who understand how little glamor is involved in the world of crime.  The rules are unwritten, but the code is quite strict, even if the good guys don’t observe them in the slightest.

(****1/2 out of *****)


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