Monday, August 16, 2010

Movie Review: Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom ****
Directed By:
David Michod.
Written By: David Michod.
Starring: James Frecheville (Joshua 'J' Cody), Ben Mendelsohn (Andrew 'Pope' Cody), Joel Edgerton (Barry Brown), Guy Pearce (Leckie), Luke Ford (Darren Cody), Jacki Weaver (Janine Cody), Sullivan Stapleton (Craig Cody), Laura Wheelwright (Nicky Henry), Dan Wyllie (Ezra White).

It’s hard to imagine a better debut film coming out this year than David Michod’s Animal Kingdom. The film is a well directed, well written extremely well acted crime drama about the most dysfunctional criminal family I have encountered in a movie in recent years. The film is set in an Australia where the difference between the cops and criminals is pretty much non existant. One unlucky teenager, essentially a good guy but with nowhere else to go, get sucked into this world and is in over his head before he even realizes what is happening.

The kid is Josh (played by newcomer James Frecheville). In the films opening scene, his mother ODs on heroin. With no where else to go, he calls his long lost grandma Janine (Jacki Weaver), who shows up at his door and takes him back to her place to take care of him. Given what happens next, Josh would have been better off fending for himself.

Josh meets his uncles Darren (Luke Ford), barely older than Josh himself and too laid back to really fight against the tide of his family, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), more of an outgoing hardass and Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), who is the “mastermind” of the group, although I use the term loosely. He seems to be charge because everyone else is scared of him. Along with their friend Barry (Joel Edgerton), these four guys are bank robberts. The problem is the bank robbery division of the police are after them – Pope in particular – and have no qualms about breaking the law to get them. If they cannot arrest them, they’d just as soon gun them down on the street. Their unit is being broken up soon, and they have plans to let these criminals walk away free.

This is a movie that could play out like a typical crime drama – and in many ways it does – but it is also much more intelligent and thoughtful than most of what this genre offers us. For one thing, while the plot may seem familiar, I can honestly say that from one moment to the next, I was never quite sure of what was going to happen. A sense of foreboding and death hangs over the entire movie, just waiting for those moments when it gets too heavy and breaks.

For another, the film is much more well observed than most films in the genre. In Frencheville, Michod found a newcomer capabale of carrying his film. He is quiet and morose – like many teenagers – and this makes him difficult to read. At first, he likes his new family – and is honored that his uncles except him, and approve of his girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright, a real cutie with acting skills to match), and so he doesn’t question it when he gets more and more involved with what is happening around him. But with someone like Pope running things, it is only a matter of time before things blow up. Mendelsohn gives the best performance in the film, and one of the best so far this year, as Pope who is creepy, cruel, violent and pathetic in equal measures. You can never trust him, and there is something definitely off about him – even his mother suggests that “it may be time to start taking your medication again”. Pope talks a lot about loyalty, and his pathetic attempts at empathy towards the other family members, trying to get them to open up, all fail because they’re all scared of him. It is a truly chilling performance. And Jacki Weaver is perfect as the boys mother. At first, she just seems like a kindly grandma, but as the movie progresses we start to feel that there’s something not quite right about her either – her kisses to her sons, always on the lips, last just a little too long to be considered purely motherly, and when she reveals the depths of her coldness and loyalty, it truly is chilling. Ma Barker has nothing on this woman.

Michod shows great skills behind the camera – from the wonderful opening montage, to his brilliant use of music (did you ever think that the cheesy pop song “I’m All Out of Love” could chill you to the bone? I didn’t, but it does here), his use of slow motion, and his ever roaming camera are all put to great use here. This is a stylish movie, but not one where the style overtakes what is happening. Animal Kingdom is a debut film of such power and skill that I am amazed that Michod had never directed a feature before. He is one of the most promising filmmakers out there right now. I cannot wait to see what he does next.

No comments:

Post a Comment