Monday, April 12, 2010

Animal Kingdom

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:
. video.

18 comments:

David O'Connell said...

Great to see all the elements seemingly come together for this one Paul. You are one of the truly elite getting to see this ahead of time! :) I'm officially drooling in anticipation.

Even though it's more of a drama than a crime film, how do you rate Lantana amongst Australian films of the last decade or so?

Paul Martin said...

When I first saw Lantana and before all the hype/plaudits, I thought it was a good, solid drama, almost European in style and - for once - something for adult. That Australia could produce something of that quality was an achievement that stood out more than what the film did.

A few months back, it screened on TV and I watched the first half hour or so and was pleasantly surprised how well it stood up. So, I like it and Ray Lawrence got the balance on that quite nicely, but I don't count it as one of the best. It was successful in appealing to both the cinephiles and the more mainstream audiences.

Paul Martin said...

David, I inadvertently deleted your comment, which I'm cutting and pasting here:

It does stand up well Paul, I'd probably rank it in my top 10 Australian films of recent years. It made Jindabyne all the more disappointing as a follow up however. I thought the local talent really let it down. Gabriel Byrne and Laura Linney were the only performers who made it worth watching - but then again I know people who feel the exact opposite is true.

I also found Jindabyne disappointing. It has nice elements that don't seem to fit together so well. Byrne and Linney are both fine actors but felt a little out of place in rural Australia.

Jurguens said...

This movie looks good. I'll have to make time (something that lately eludes me) to see it.

Personally, I would add Lantana and Lake Mungo to the list, but it's probably personal taste more than anything.

dmk said...

Have you seen Men's Group, Paul? Could you take this shit seriously? Hilarious stuff.

I really liked one of the posters for Animal Kingdom, this one:
http://www.impawards.com/2010/posters/animal_kingdom.jpg

As for the film, I'll probably watch it, but it doesn't look like something I'll like... crime thriller... what do you think? Keep in mind I thought Mao's Last Dancer was complete shit, and A Prophet was solid, but nothing special...

Paul Martin said...

My point in mentioning what I consider the top local films of the last two decades was so that one could see where I was coming from in terms of how I view Animal Kingdom. Most cinephiles I know agree that The Boys is one of the best Australian films of all time. If you liked that, chances are you'll like Animal Kingdom.

Derek, I believe that poster accompanied the film at Sundance. And I missed Men's Group.

d m k said...

<<<<< SPOILERS >>>>

I watched it yesterday afternoon, and concur entirely that it is good. Due to reasons you need not know – I needed to get a croissant and a drink, some cash out, and a pass of fluid - I missed the first few minutes of the film, but like with Shutter Island – which I also missed the first few minutes of – I sense this improved my viewing experience - it kept me on my toes, certain circumstances seemed curious and vague, I missed a lot of the character introduction, I individually inserted a slight oblique angle to it...

Now I’ve lost my train of thought. Oh well.

I do like the way the film was shot, visually striking, but not in that music video kind of way (Accidents Happen) but rather in a more expressionistic sense. My anticipation for the film piqued when a friend of mine told me it was reminiscent of Michael Mann. While the resemblances were trivial, the pulsating use of music and colour were not too dissimilar from Mann’s somewhat conventional/lesser 1990’s work (Heat, The Insider), but... you’re surely doing something right if your inspiration is that guy – most particularly for a crime drama. And for most of the film, I was thinking the same thing – ‘this film is doing everything right’. Can’t say I was as fond of the final act – and most especially the ending, which obviously came right out of.... The Departed. Also, I don’t agree that the character development was quite as accomplished. Maybe it was the director’s need to avoid too much exposition, but compare it to The Square – which might not be as visually accomplished as Animal Kingdom – but who’s individuals are so strongly constructed, so devastatingly human. The Square might be the more blemished of the two, smaller of the two, but I might prefer it.

Still, both of these films are the strongest crime films made in this country, maybe ever.

Kim said...

While I thought David Michod in Anmal Kingdom proved himself to be an accomplished director, I thought Nash Edgerton's direction in The Square was a level better.

A thought both films had terrible scripts.

I was probably more disappointed with Animal Kingdom because my expectations were so high.

Brown and out said...

I thought it was kind of shit.

There was no attempt to push cinema in any direction other than straight down the middle with text book direction and NIDA trained acting. You can rave about the performances all you like, and while they're never bad, it all represents a film like any other. There are some emotional high points but they amount to little when so much emphasis is placed on stock standard narrative. The filmmaker was trying too hard to make something poignant and serious. He should've at least had it edited by a blind hobo. In lieu of that, kill yourself.

Watch Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans or Thunderbolt and Lightfoot instead.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives tonight!

tumbleweed said...

I liked a lot about this but thought it was let down by lack of depth of development with the characters, was anything much hanging on what happened to them? wasn't for me which kind of left it hollow. Were they crims of any significance, they didn't seem to be part of anything much, and who loved them, who cared? Mum was too psycho to identify with... Maybe I missed something. J was so blank most of the time except for one exception I couldn't get into his drama.. The film goes to great length to set a mood of tense drama with various "tricks" and really works hard to get one to like it too in endearing ways and I was entertained by it but I felt it fell short somehow of having any real gravitas ***

d m k said...

See, now it’s mandatory that I get a blind hobo to edit my film. It just sounds like too great an idea to dismiss. And tumbleweed, gt, paul; you’ll all get a copy when it’s done, but make sure you all email me (click ‘d m k’). It’s a total legit thing I’ll be filming for uni. The film starts off with laconic conversations between two people. They don’t really talk though, they sit there for 20 minutes looking at, then away, from each other attempting to articulate words. Then all this other shit happens. In respect to John Carpenter, one scene will be shot in VHS just for the sake of it.

Yeah.

Nicholas Gruen said...

My two cents worth is that it was a well made film, but ultimately a costume drama. The lost looking young 'hero' was believable enough in his lost looking way, but the others were not really credible. They were so obviously played by middle class NIDA graduate types - something really also true fo the 'hero' come to think of it. Jackie Weaver too. A well made film, which did its thing - which was to psych me out efficiently enough, but with nothing much real to say.

tumbleweed said...

that link supposed to work derek? doesn't for me...

Paul Martin said...

tumbleweed, if you hover your mouse over the link you should see the email address in the browser's status bar.

UNCLE SPPOONMEE said...

IT'S A TRAP

d m k said...

Yeah, I was a failure in regards to that; I was too sure of myself. But Paul worked it out: hover.

Hey Paul, do you know anything about Shirley Barrett's South Solitary release status? I'm probably not looking hard enough, but I fail to see it on any upcoming release lists. The film looks good though.

Also, Christopher Weekes's Muppet Man seems to be getting made now. I had the script on my computer, but I accidently deleted it, so I never got to read it. I'm sure it's fantastic though.

Paul Martin said...

Derek, I read something about Barrett's film, but I have no recall on it - I'm preoccupied with life at the moment. I've only seen one film in the last six weeks, which happens to be Animal Kingdom.

Greg said...

There were excellent performances, particularly by Jacki Weaver and Ben Mendelsohn, but the music often created an air of unreality, especially in linking scenes. The characters were not ones one could empathise with, with Josh's motivation hard to understand. Pretty good, but with enough problems to disengage me.