Animal Kingdom. 2010. Directed & Written by David Michôd.
Starring James Frecheville, Jacki Weaver, Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton, Mirrah Foulkes, Anthony Ahern, Justin Rosniak, Laura Wheelwright, & Guy Pearce. Porchlight Films/Screen Australia/Film Victoria.
Rated 1A. 113 minutes.
With the TNT series booming and winning me over, I decided to go back to David Michôd’s original 2010 Animal Kingdom. For a debut feature, Michôd does impressive work taking the real life events surrounding a Melbourne crime family’s shocking involvement in various crimes, including a pair of cop killings in the late ’80s, and crafts the sordid tale into a compelling bit of Australian cinema.
On the one hand, I do love the TNT series because it gives us a chance to look at an expanded view of the Cody family, although transposed to the sunny beaches of California. On the other, Michôd offers up a concise and hard look at the crime family. Some of the events involved follow the actual family (the Pettingills) upon which the story is based closely. For instance, in ’88 when two members of the gang were involved in the Walsh Street police shootings, the circumstances are incredibly similar to a scene depicted when a couple cops are murdered by Pope and Darren (Ben Mendelsohn & Luke Ford). Then there’s the matriarch Smurf (played confident and firm by Jacki Weaver), whose backstory and character are creatively embellished to make the story of the Codys even more deep and engaging.
But the bottom line is that Michôd uses his skills as director and writer to dig the story’s hooks into his audience. The acting is spectacular, a real highlight of the movie. The clear and greatest element is the grim intensity of a story that takes us inside a family dominated by greedy power, wayward loyalty, and paranoia.
After the initially grim opening scene, the gravity of the story deepens fast into dark places. The most telling moment is when Josh sees one of his uncles breaking down, while his other uncle Pope merely stands at the counter and has himself a drink, as if it all were commonplace for normal people. That single moment defines Pope’s character. He is truly chilling, which only gets creepier and more terrifying. In fact, only a scene or two later we watch Pope sit there listening to a song on television and staring intently at Josh (James Frecheville)and his young girlfriend asleep nearby; an unsettling scene, to say the least. There’s no real threat, even after he carries the girl up to bed. Although a very genuine feeling of unease sets in after this event. Sets up Pope perfectly in such a short amount of time, as well as the confrontation and tension between him and Josh that you know is coming, somewhere down the line.
Mendelsohn is fascinating. His abilities as a character actor astonish me from one role to the next. He has this real knack for being cold and calculating that serves him well as Pope; easily the most unnerving Cody brother. Moreover, he and Weaver do feel like mother and son, in the most devious sense. He feels like a product of her nastiness. The way Pope so casually does the awful things of which he’s capable is a testament to the laid back nature of Mendelsohn. He can play more excitable, loud characters, too. However, the strength of Pope comes in the form of his quiet, subdued attitude. It’s what makes the character so spooky.
And you can’t forget Frecheville. Only his second film. What he does well is play a jaded young man. I mean, right off the top we can tell he’s utterly desensitised to the ugly world surrounding him. In the first scene his mother overdoses on heroin, so he casually calls emergency, then dials up his estranged grandmother like it’s no big deal. There’s such an immediate sense of his disillusionment. A lot of people might see it as a flat performance. I don’t, at all. Especially once the turning point comes – he breaks down crying and it’s one of those actually emotional scenes that pokes you in the heart. If it weren’t for Frecheville, Josh could have come off in a way that didn’t serve the story. He does, and it allows us to see what can finally shake someone out of their complacency, even if it is extreme.
There’s an air of tension constantly upheld. The screenplay is enough, but Michôd uses everything in his arsenal to increase the tense bits of the plot. One of the earliest things I noticed is a quick shot of Pope and Craig standing on the porch of their house, smoking, watching the cops watching them – the score from Antony Partos keeps the air full of apprehension and crawls right up under your skin, as Adam Arkapaw’s (Macbeth, True Detective Season 1, Snowtown) cinematography captures the raw qualities of the lower class Australian neighbourhood surrounding the characters. Everything is suspicious, every moment suspenseful. There’s a lot of good stuff happening in the first half hour to kick the film off in fine form. And that quality never, ever lets up.
Almost every scene that involves a good deal of suspenseful writing, such as the little coincidences, the mistakes of real people weaved in and out of the plot, those times where Josh finds himself lucky, they’re often driven by that score from Partos. Certain pieces are very heavy. Others have the sound of what you feel your heartbeat is doing, watching Josh, waiting to see exactly what will happen to him or if he’ll choose to take action. Instead of using pop music like many contemporary crime films, Michôd lets Partos ingrain his sounds into each scene to give every moment its own weight; in a way, this score allows the film to stay serious in tone, to never get outside of itself.
Animal Kingdom is a top notch dramatic crime-thriller, it focuses on a dangerous family with intricate inner workings that prove to be deadly, for others and themselves. The entire film is pretty solid. There are a few flaws, such as I do wish certain parts – characters, events – were expanded on. There could have been a bit more exposition, just to make some of the characters in particular stronger. That’s what the TNT series does for me. It gives the characters and the various major events in their lives time to grow, really becoming unbearably intense; in the best, most dramatic way possible.
Despite any of its little missteps, Animal Kingdom deserves a spot in the best crime movies post-2000. Definitely a great mark for Australian film, and on the list of my favourites from Down Under. Watch for the performances and the great direction. It’s all worth the journey.