Animal Kingdom: Sundance Fest Winner

By Patrick McGavin

An assured, volatile and often striking first feature by David Michôd, the Australian crime saga “Animal Kingdom” moves with a crispness and authority that gathers a jolting intensity.

Making of theFilm: emanuellevy.com/office/articles/edit.cfm?id=15835

Michôd is a natural, intuitive filmmaker, and his movie’s of a piece: colorful, violent and profane.  As director, Michôd holds the entire work in tight grip; sometimes to a fault.  Overplotted, the movie needs time to breathe and some space for its sharply drawn character.  But by and large, the work is terrifying good, colored and sustained by the exquisite casting and sensational acting.
“Animal Kingdom” won the world cinema dramatic prize at Sundance in January and plays at the Los Angeles Film festival before Sony Classics opens the movie commercially in August.
Like Jacques Audiard’s great French crime thriller “A Prophet,” the Australian movie is concerned with a young man’s unsentimental education. Like his French counterpart, Michôd molds and shapes the material around a somewhat blank, inchoate central presence. That absence at the center, paradoxically, allows the vibrant, charged secondary figures to take hold and give the youngster time to find his rhythm and identity.
Michôd conceives the work in very specific terms, like “The Godfather,” “Goodfellas,” or “Heat,” crime sagas where the very particularized role of family interaction has a business or market corollary that governs very specific rules, behavior and attitude.
Set in Melbourne, the movie opens on a disturbingly off-center note. As paramedics attend to an unresponsive woman suffering from a drug overdose, the woman’s teenaged son, Joshua (James Freecheville), makes a phone call to inform the woman’s mother, his grandmother, of her death.
The brazen title sequence outlines the family’s moneymaking operation, bank robberies and jewel thefts, is not the typical family enterprise.
From the start, Michôd captures the seediness of the lifestyle and loose, criminal amorality. The clothes, the split-level ranch homes, all seem just a little off. The characters, aware of their rot and desperate social aspirations, never seem wholly natural or welcome in their environment. They’re all naturally abrasive and inhospitable.
The natural exception is the lynchpin of the operation, the notorious Janine Cody, or colloquially known “Smurf” (the astounding Jacki Weaver). With her blonde hair, open face and warmly insinuating nature, Smurf has a coiled toughness. She’s a bit self-aggrandizing, but there’s no doubt she’s the one in control. She’s not just savvy, but she knows the inherent strengths and emotional vulnerabilities, both outsized ambitions and private failures, of her three sons.
The oldest son, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), appears the most malicious and unhinged. Two years out of the joint, he’s kind of a walking nightmare who inspires dread because of his paranoia and general low-rent skuzzy actions. The middle son, Cody (Sullivan Stapleton), is the wild card, the one who’s expanded the operations to include drug dealing that expands the family’s criminal reach. Darren (Luke Ford), the youngest, is only a couple of years older than J; like his nephew, he’s cherubic and unformed, but a quick and willing participant.
The other major figure is Baz (Joel Edgerton), Pope’s confidante and best mate. He’s a wary, reluctant warrior who lives with his wife and small child. The life has clearly worn him out, but he’s smart and innovative. He’s a natural survivor, and he is encouraging Pope to follow his lead and embrace the stock market or other legitimate forms of business.
The movie’s never quiet or drab. It is always on the move. At the start, we view the characters from J’s privileged aura. Likewise, there is never a problem of Michôd romanticizing the characters. Once he establishes their world, the danger, the vicarious thrills, he reveals how shallow and abased they are. Violence is a constant threat, and it comes from sharp or unsuspecting angles.
“Animal Kingdom” charts a series of unpredictable, staggering movements. The first is the death of a significant character who is killed in an ambush staged by rogue police officers. That death also signals the end of J’s own innocence. He’s drafted into the gang’s reprisal. Again, Michôd is young, but he’s got verve and a strong sense of disruption. The revenge carried out, unfolding on a placid and eerie quiet street at night, is pungent and terrifying.
It coolly establishes the movie’s often sinister moral terrain. If J is implicated morally in that horrifying action, the more damaging episode is the subsequent cruel fate that awaits his own girlfriend, the quite beautiful, beguiling Nicky (Laura Wheelwright). She becomes an unfortunate pawn in the increasingly fractured and pathological behavior of J’s increasingly unhinged family.
The balance of “Animal Kingdom” is J’s flight from these entwined and dangerous forces: the unstable family or the police, embodied by the intrepid detective (Guy Pearce)who are offering a wholly different brand of sanctuary.
The question hangs on whether he is capable of that kind of family treachery and betrayal. Throughout all of this, J is an enigma. He’s alternately soft and weak, shrewd and easy to underestimate. Rather than deflate the drama, the blankness and uncertainty he projects is part of the larger film’s unsettling and elusive qualities. The movie’s violence is unsentimental, rough and despairing.
In the final third, the violence gives way to something even more punishing and dramatically revealing. Michôd imbues it all with a deranged grandeur. But he gives the actors their moments to shine and they respond accordingly, endowing the material with a depth and conviction. In the most exhilarating sequence, Smurf confronts a crooked cop (Justin Rosniak) on the family payroll to acquire some privileged information about J. Weaver’s performance is remarkable, tense, subtle and finely controlled. By comparison, J seems way out of his depth. He finds his own way.
So does the movie. “Animal Kingdom” is about the slippery divide, not between right and wrong, or morality and grace, but a much different and difficult to come by sense of redemption. Whether, in the end, everybody gets what they deserved is not really the point. In this movie, everything connects. Every action carries a damning consequence that leaves no stone or person untouched.