Sunday, January 16, 2011

Animal Kingdom Movie Review: All in the Family

Josh, or J as he is known to family and friends, is a kid trying to survive the harsh circumstances of his life. When we first see him he’s passively watching the television with a passed out woman by his side. The paramedics burst in and ask what she took. “Heroin,” he utters as he continues to pay more attention to the banalities on the idiot box than to his dying mother on the sofa.

If that scene doesn’t jolt you with its impassivity, then the next one almost assuredly will. We see J on the phone saying, “Hi Grandma. Mom’s gone and ODed and she’s died.” When she responds, “Oh, are you all right?” we know everything we need to know about her. We imagine J has lived a grueling existence with a drug addict mother who, it should be noted, kept her son sheltered from his grandmother and uncles. James Frecheville plays him as a kid detached from life trying to find his place in a world that seems to have nothing but cold indifference toward him, a point somewhat clumsily made by the film’s title, Animal Kingdom, and the detective who tries to help him.


Writer and director David Michod, with his first feature-length film, weaves a story of a young man caught in between two worlds: the Melbourne, Australia, based criminals who comprise his family, and the detective squad whom he also sees fit not to trust completely, especially after seeing what they’re capable of.

J’s uncles are bank robbers on the brink of ruin because the police have started a severe crackdown, including assassinations of the thieves they can’t catch. This has forced eldest brother Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) underground. Middle brother Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) has turned to selling drugs (and using them). He’s like a shark that has to be constantly on the move in order to survive. The youngest, Darren (Luke Ford), has a sweet face and is only a few years older than J, making him more of a cousin than an uncle. With his hesitancy to participate in his brothers’ crimes and his reluctance to allow J to get involved he represents where J could end up in a few years if he steps wrongly.

When the police gun down Baz (Joel Edgerton), a close friend of the brothers, Pope goes gunning for blood and gets them involved in a war that we know can’t possibly end well. And he involves J by directing him to steal a car for use in a deadly crime. Later J is questioned by Detective Lockie (Guy Pearce), who seems like he wants to save him. But are his motives really so pure when J’s testimony could put the menacing Pope in prison?

We see right way that J is someone who could have a better life if he weren’t trapped by circumstances. In fact, he tries to get away by moving in with his girlfriend and her family, distancing himself from the home of his violent uncles and Grandma Janine.

Of course J is the hero, the one who garners our sympathies. But the movie would be as bland and devoid of emotion as he is if it didn’t also have Pope and Janine. Pope comes on like any monster in real life – you would never guess there’s anything wrong when you first meet him. But he’s a true sociopath. Mendelsohn plays him in a flawless performance of quiet intimidation. His family seems to know instinctively how not to set him off. When he approaches Darren with an open heart saying, “I want you to tell me if you’re scared. You can confide in me,” there’s an undertone that suggests something sinister.

Then there’s the gruesome monstrosity of Janine, not exactly the paragon of grand-maternal love and affection. She’s like the worst qualities of tragedy’s female rolled into one. She’s Clytemnestra, Medea and Lady MacBeth together. But like her boy Pope, you have to see below the surface to catch it. Jacki Weaver’s performance is frightening in its intensity and depiction of such deep-seated evil. She’ll make your skin crawl. She makes Micky and Dicky’s mother in The Fighter look positively homey. Weaver has been the recipient of several year-end awards and may be about to earn an Oscar nomination. If that’s the reason this movie reaches a wider audience, then the Academy Awards have some tangible value.

Come to think of it, the movie as a whole has its roots in Greek tragedy, in much the same as season one of “The Wire” – that brilliant TV series about a crime family, with which this movie shares common themes. I would hardly be surprise to learn that Michod took some modicum of inspiration from that show. Animal Kingdom is not quite as violent, but the scenes that employ violence are visceral, rendered almost too realistically, hitting home with great force. J is trapped in a situation without resources at his disposal to extricate himself, just like several characters on “The Wire” who typically met with a tragic fate.

When J makes his final decision, it’s hard to judge him given the information he has. He has only his wits to keep him alive, and he gets himself out of more than a couple of seemingly no-win jams. In the end, all we can do is look on in not so much horror as resigned disappointment over J’s fate. He may have been forced into his decisions, but in the end he will have to reap the consequences. It’s remarkable how well Michod’s script and direction makes us feel simply sad about that.

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