17th London Australian Film Festival: ‘Animal Kingdom’

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Animal Kingdom

Directed by David Michôd

Written by David Michôd

2010, Australia

Causing quite a splash on last years festival circuit the debut feature of writer David Michôd is the ambitious Animal Kingdom, a sprawling journey through the grim underbelly of a Melbourne criminal fraternity. The ripples caused by the films theft of the Sundance World Cinema Award intensified with the Oscar nomination of Jacki Weaver, a famous face in Australia’s indigenous TV and theatre worlds, her performance as the dead eyed matriarch of a  clan of drug dealers, robbers and thieves is a powerful contribution to an arresting vision of antipodean anarchy. Fans of the crime genre have had to endure a line-up of American pictures that have been reluctantly embezzled recently – Takers2:22, there are others but they were so pedestrian and dull I’ve already forgotten their titles  – which have been uniformly terrible, sub-par Michael Mann clones who seem to think that  scoring frenziedly edited heists to nu-rock soundtracks is an efficient method of generating tension, suspense and interest. Animal Kingdom is an altogether different zoo, a controlled and saturnine analysis of a violent strata of society that meanders into the lives of regular people, with its chilling performances and a consistent, simmering implication of threat it’s quite an illegitimate achievement.

The navigation of this underworld is charted through the eyes of J (an impressive James Frecheville), a 17-year-old adolescent who in a pre-credits sequence is listlessly watching TV whilst awaiting the arrival of the paramedics, shortly after his mother has overdosed on a fatal hot-shot of heroin. J’s mother had restricted access to his extended family in a vain effort to protect him from their lethal lifestyles, now that she is gone and in the absence of any alternative moral shield he is immediately sucked into a horrendous vortex of violence that his extended family generates. His four uncles are individually noxious and collectively treacherous, from the pragmatist Barry (Joel Edgerton), the erratic Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) the ruthless Andrew (Ben Mendelsohn) and the conflicted Darren (Luke Ford), J finds himself reluctantly involved if not directly responsible for the commission and execution of some ferocious homicides. Shadowing her sons criminal escapades is the bloated Janine Cody (Weaver), a poisonous crone whose admiration and adoration of her offspring  insinuates a queasy, quasi-incestuous nausea that permeates the film. The Armed Robbery division of the local law enforcement is notoriously corrupt with their carefree executions of suspects and the subsequent doctoring of crime scenes to implicate the perps, elevating the stakes from a stretch in the big house to a warm grave in the Melbourne purlieus. The only police character that is fully sketched out is Sergeant Leckie (Guy Pearce in fine hirsute form after The Kings Speech setback), a determined yet sympathetic figure who can see the essential decency in J’s misguided collusions, and as Leckie uses that insight to lever a potential witness out of the brooding family dynamics J finds himself torn between loyalty and survival.

Animal Kingdom is a very solemn film, with a well constructed line in gritty realism – the movie is more Ken Loach than the repugnant affectations of Guy Ritchie – without resorting too many of the predictable definitions of the genre. The usual macho grandstanding that these films tend to promote is thankfully absent, as J memorably observes in his infrequent voiceovers the bad guys are just as scared as the cops on their tail, understanding that the arbiters of justice feel confident enough to declare a war unshackled by the demands of a civilised and transparent legal framework. The direction is direct and robust, apart from the occasional tampering with some focus alignments the film centres on the internalized performances, with a fine discordant score that underlines the perilous scenario that all the characters are operating within. The elephant in the room has to be the lacerating Chopper, a film which I think I enjoyed a little more than this, but that’s akin to comparing apples and oranges as their intentions and designs do not effortlessly correspond, that film was much more flamboyant and humorous in line with the titular characters abrasive personality. Animal Kingdom sidesteps the picture postcard route of Melbourne’s celebrated Victorian architecture, this is a film which unfolds in modest bungalows and sterile hotel rooms out in the suburbs, and the restrained violence that occurs is suitably shocking and unvarnished, resulting in some thoroughly unexpected exits for some quickly established assets. I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more of James Frecheville whose distant performance was the equal of Jacki Weaver dolorous dissertation, whilst she failed to secure the Oscar statuette last February the nomination is praise enough for what I’m told is a long and distinguished career. After last years Samson & Delilah it is welcome the opportunity to see another fine film from our Commonwealth colleagues, it’s quite simply refreshing to see what is ostentatiously a genre picture that isn’t haunting the bars, clubs and tourists spots of London’s East End or New York’s hinterlands. More psychological than sociological Animal Kingdom is a fine addition to the crime movie deviations with a committed devotion to not mythologizing its protagonists murderous antics, and is one of the most gripping films to emerge from Australia in years.

– John McEntee

Visit the official website for the festival

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