Animal Kingdom (David Michôd, Australia, 2010)
This debut feature by David Michôd, which won the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is simply exhilarating. I'll go so far as to say that I think it's easily one of the top ten Australian films of the last two decades. To put that into perspective, the only films I’d place on that pedestal are: Everynight... Everynight, The Boys, Em 4 Jay and Samson and Delilah. If pushed, I could also include Ten Canoes, Shine and Three Blind Mice. And now Animal Kingdom.
Animal Kingdom is a mixture of genres – at heart an ensemble family drama, but also a crime thriller. The poster art perfectly captures the mood – much like a Shakespearean or Greek tragedy. Clearly inspired by the events surrounding the Walsh Street police shootings of 1988, it details a family’s implosion as crime and police corruption collide. Josh or J (James Frecheville) is embraced by that part of the family that his mother hid from him until she unexpectedly dies. He has no-one else to turn to. Like Malik, the young petty crim in Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, he becomes our unwitting tour guide to the dark side as we follow a relative innocent’s induction into a world of crime.
Animal Kingdom is no less suspenseful than Audiard’s film and just as powerful. In fact, it's like a cross between A Prophet and The Boys. There is some violence, but it’s mostly off-screen. The film creates a nail-biting atmosphere by feeding the audience information that characters are denied. One of my favourite scenes involves a suburban dad (Clayton Jacobson from Kenny) simply backing his car out of his drive-way. We know the urgency of the situation, but he’s oblivious to the danger. There are various twists, which are wholly ‘organic’ and believable, as opposed to being tricksy Hollywood-style.
Some actors have never put in better performances. Michôd has brilliantly tapped a hitherto unseen talent in Ben Mendelsohn, without a trace of his usual larrikinisms. His inhabiting the role of a criminal psychopath is just as terrifying as David Wenham’s Brett Sprague in The Boys. Jackie Weaver's performance as the matriarch is also stunning. It demonstrates a skillful balance of excess and restraint, with an unsettling effect created by the contradictions of her homeliness, emotional neediness, mental stability and cunning ruthlessness. She has some great lines and is one of the backbones of the story. Guy Pearce is another and his performance as the seasoned detective is perfectly understated. Frecheville and Mendelsohn are the other pillars.
The whole ensemble cast performs well, with strong support from Joel Edgerton, Sullivan Stapleton, Dan White, Laura Wheelwright and others. Character development is just wonderful across the board. The story works so well because Michôd mostly underplays it, trimming the film of any fat. J is quietly introverted, so we don’t know what to expect. Ambiguity in characters causes doubt about who can be trusted. Sometimes, when action takes place, it seemingly comes out of nowhere. Court scenes are all but removed, focusing on the human and suspense elements.
Adam Arkapaw's magnificent camera work recalls László Baranyai's work in Noise (2007), easily the best aspect of that film. The music and sound design are terrific – pretty much on a par with the excellent achievements of Samson and Delilah. Each of the parts of Animal Kingdom is well-realised; the sum of the parts is sublime. This is a finely constructed story, one of the best films of the year and I can’t wait to see it again. Given that Sony Picture Classics snapped it up straight after the Sundance gong, hopefully it will do well in the US. I have no doubt it will receive a strong reception here.
Animal Kingdom is being released in Australian cinemas on 3 June.
Links: Official website
Here's the trailer: