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Animal Kingdom - Review

Animal Kingdom

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

DAVID Michôd’s directorial debut Animal Kingdom was named among Quentin Tarantino’s top five movies of 2010 and has earned one of its stars, Jacki Weaver, a best supporting actress nod at the Oscars. It is a powerhouse piece of filmmaking and a stunning first feature.

Inspired by the Walsh Street killings of two police officers in Melbourne in the ’80s, the film serves as a both a clever deconstruction of the romanticism surrounding bank robbers as evidenced in a lot of Hollywood films, as well as a troubling coming-of-age tale.

It’s a film that concerns itself with fear and anxiety… and one that marks the end of an era for both the type of bank robber it depicts and the old-school police officer going after them.

After the accidental death of his heroin-addicted mother, 17-year-old ‘J’ (James Frecheville) goes to live with his grandmother ‘Smurf’ Cody (Jacki Weaver) and her criminal sons, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford).

But the sudden arrival of their fugitive older brother, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), matters take a darker turn as his increasingly unstable methods threaten to de-stabilise the family and rip the tight unit apart.

Not helping matters are the ongoing attentions of the cops, led by Leckie (Guy Pearce), who see J as a way in… but whose own brutal tactics kick-start a war between the two parties that could have fatal consequences for all.

Michôd, a former film journalist, has created a slow-boiling crime saga that bucks many of the trends inherent in the genre. Indeed, his film doesn’t show a single bank robbery (save for the real black and white photos he drops in over the opening credits) and strips away the glamour of the criminal lifestyle almost entirely.

Instead, he plunges temperamental teen ‘J’ into the middle of a highly volatile situation that’s frought with distrust, tension and angst. The Cody family seem to know what fate lies in store for them but still drift towards it like moths to a flame.

But they won’t go down without a fight and in both Weaver’s ‘Smurf’ and Mendelsohn’s Pope, Michôd has created two of the most chilling villains in recent memory – two seemingly inocuous looking people whose deeds and actions come from a place of pure evil (and self-preservation).

Caught in the middle, meanwhile, is Frecheville’s ‘J’ – a boy-man whose physique and demeanour suggest he can fit in, but who is totally out of his depth. Frecheville combines both attributes well and becomes a character worth rooting for.

Pearce, meanwhile, is typically commanding as the changing face of the authorities pursuing the family, whose attempts to reach out to ‘J’ and develop a paternal alternative are deeply affecting.

Animal Kingdom may not be laden with set pieces and flashy editing, and takes a more slow build approach more akin to the tough thrillers of the ’70s. But for those willing to take its often brutal journey, the rewards are massive.

Michôd’s film contains a palpable sense of tension and some mesmerising performances, culminating in several sequences that leave you drained and emotionally shattered (including the horrific murder of two cops and the slaying of an innocent). It is an exceptionally mature piece of work that deserves all the accolades that have hitherto come its way.

It’s also easy to see why Tarantino is such a fan, too, for even though it’s not immediately derivative of his own technique, one suspects that both filmmakers draw their influences from similar places.

Animal Kingdom is, without a doubt, another of this year’s must-see films. It’s a superior crime drama that establishes Michôd as a genuinely young filmmaker whose future career should be monitored with interest.

Certificate: 15
Running time: 113mins
UK Release Date: February 25, 2011