Film review: Animal KingdomBy Kim Francis
March 02, 2011
Amid the clamour that has surrounded all the high profile films recognised this awards season, Aussie crime drama Animal Kingdom might have passed under your radar.
With the focus on lavish, big-budget productions involving well-known talent – The King’s Speech, The Fighter, The Social Network, Black Swan et al – the media attention on this low-budget Aussie film supported by the UK Film Council has been minimal.
Be assured that Animal Kingdom is as accomplished as any of the big-hitters.
When disaffected youth Josh ‘J’ Cody (James Frecheville) loses his mother to a heroin overdose as he sits next to her on the sofa watching a game show, he is untouched by grief. Instead, he considers how he is going to look after himself.
Clueless, and seemingly feckless, he calls his estranged grandmother, Janine (Jacki Weaver), who immediately takes him in. Janine is the domineering head of a fearsome Australian crime family and the unwritten trade-off is that J now enters the law-defying fold in return for a roof over his head and the ‘love’ of his family.
At first, it seems like the reckless and impulsive Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is the ruler of the roost – he’s a drug dealer and, it seems, the most unhinged of all.
It soon emerges that it’s actually older brother Andrew(Ben Mendelsohn), or ‘Pope’ as he’s known, who is the wanted man.
Running an armed robbery operation with partner-in-crime ‘Baz’ Brown (Joel Edgerton), he is wanted dead by a group of renegade cops.
When Pope re-emerges from hiding, the balance of power in the family shifts and things start to go awry.
Kindly cop Leckie (Guy Pearce) wants the family put away lawfully and sees a way to do it with J’s help. But will J betray his family?
And what repercussions might that have on his blossoming relationship with his innocent girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright)?
The most striking aspect of Animal Kingdom is the characterisation of the menacing Cody family, and the way in which animal instincts play out.
With Craig initially depicted as the alpha male in the family group, we soon see that it’s the matriarch that’s actually in control.
She dominates her boys in an unsettling way bordering on the incestuous; she plants lingering kisses on their lips and strokes their faces with inappropriate affection. But when eldest son Pope appears, the status quo is rocked, and it gradually becomes apparent that he’s the one with the tightest, and most sinister, grip.
Ben Mendelsohn’s performance as Pope is (oxymoronically) quietly spectacular. His transformation from meek, mild, on-edge oddball complete with tics and restrained body language into a manipulative, self-assured tyrant is an acting tour-de-force. It comes via a disquieting scene in which he lecherously eyes J’s teenage girlfriend Nicky while she sleeps.
And it’s assisted in no small part by some brilliant directing. David Michôd’s feature film debut is remarkably assured. It’s never flashy or self-reflexive, instead proficiently drawing out the richness and depth to the story in understated ways.
Incorporating the psychoanalytical theme of the absent father and the devastating effects this can have on the family unit, Animal Kingdom could be said to have a misogynistic undercurrent.
There is no denying that Michôd’s film is gripping stuff – with the most horrifying matriarch seen on screen since Karen Black’s Mother Firefly in Rob Zombie’s disturbing exploitation horror House of 1000 Corpses. Janine Cody is a creation you simply must see for yourself.