J awakens one day to find his mother dead from a heroin overdose. He waits, calmly, while the ambulance attendants take her away, and then he calls the only other family he has. His grandmother, Janine (aka Smurf), picks him up and welcomes him into her home. J soon discovers why his mother tried to keep him away from this extended family… his three uncles along with a friend are involved deep in Melbourne’s criminal underworld including drug dealing, bank robbery, and possibly murder. J’s arrival coincides with a stepped-up police investigation into the family’s activities, and when a seemingly concerned detective singles out J as a possible witness the teen realizes survival of the fittest is no game… it’s a way of life. And death.
Animal Kingdom is writer/director David Michod’s debut, and it’s this year’s answer to The Hurt Locker when it comes to pure, unrelenting tension. J is our window into not only the personal realm of one crooked family but also of the dangerous and menacing world outside. His Melbourne streets are the urban equivalent of the African Veldt where everyone is prey until they figure out the rules of nature and their place in it. Michod presents J’s indoctrination into this landscape as an uncertain path between a family determined to maintain their lifestyles at any cost and a police department hell-bent on taking them down by any means necessary. It’s as smart and assured of a film debut as anyone could have hoped, and fans of quality cinema would be well-advised to seek it out in its limited theatrical run.
The core of Animal Kingdom‘s success rests with the characters and the performances behind them. Well, everyone aside from J (James Frecheville). The teen is the epitome of inaction and disinterest for much of the film, and his presence is often only felt in reaction to the much stronger characters of those around him. Guy Pearce’s Det. Leckie is the single sincere and shining light in an otherwise corrupt police department, but even he is using J for his own purpose. Jacki Weaver’s portrayal of J’s grandmother is menace wrapped in a hug, and she’s terrifying in her ability to change from loving concern to icy determination on a dime. Or on whatever Australia’s equivalent coined currency is anyway. The only other recognizable face (to most of us) is Joel Edgerton who also starred in last year’s notable Aussie thriller, The Square (and will soon be seen in the redo/prequel to The Thing). He’s the most sensible of the group with plans to exit the game, but his calm integrity is tested by past deeds and future promises.
The standout here is easily Ben Mendelsohn’s portrayal of the clan’s most dangerous member, Pope. It’s a brilliant and frightening turn as deserving of an Oscar as Christoph Waltz was for Inglourious Basterds. His slow, methodical speech and slightly off stare do more to place you on the edge of your seat than many suspense or horror films manage in their entirety. He’s a sociopath waiting for the smallest thing to set him off, usually something unseen and unheard to the rest of us, and that uncertainty is incredibly unsettling. If you don’t quiver in fearful anticipation during one of the scenes between him and J’s girlfriend then, well, good on you I guess. But at the very least you’ll never listen to Air Supply’s “All Out Of Love” the same way again.
Strong characters are necessary as much of the film’s first half is spent talking and learning everyone’s relationship to each other and their surroundings, but the narrative becomes a thing of unpredictable beauty once one of them is murdered by a disgruntled police unit investigating the family. As Pope’s suspicions and fears begin to grow his instability affects those around him and makes for some incredibly tense scenes where anything seems possible. Events unfold in unexpected directions and with unforeseen outcomes, and even as Michod wears his cinematic influences on his sleeve via song cues and editing you’ll be struck by this newcomer’s vision and talent.
Animal Kingdom opens this weekend in NY and LA, and should make a slow spread elsewhere in the weeks to come. It may not have a rag-tag group of commandos brimming with decades-old testosterone, or videogame-inspired end battles and romance, or even a rich, white woman discovering she loves the taste of ethnic men, but it deserves your attention all the same. Seek it out, enjoy it, and support quality film-making regardless of budget or geographic origin.
The Upside: Fantastically acted; sudden acts of violence are unexpected and shocking; Ben Mendelsohn is terrifying; truly unpredictable, tense, and emotionally explosive at times
The Downside: Pacing may not feel as smooth on repeat viewings; Frecheville is the opposite of engaging
On the Side: I used the prefix “un-” twelve times in this damn review. That’s unbelievably excessive.