Film Reviews

Animal Kingdom David Michôd

Rating - 9/10

I take umbrage when people refer to The Godfather as a Gangster film. This is because The Godfather is first and foremost a film about a family, who just happen to be gangsters. This, I feel, is a fairly obvious but important distinction to make. The Godfather essentially spawned its own sub-genre – the crime family film - that includes such diverse work from HBO’s The Sopranos to Ben Wheatley’s jet black Brit comedy Down Terrace. Whilst Animal Kingdom and its low life Melbourne crime clan the Codys very much feel like they belong in the crime family film canon, director David Michôd has skillfully carved the film out a grubby niche all of its own.

When 17 year old Joshua ‘J’ Cody’s mum dies of a heroin overdose, he has little choice but to reconnect with his estranged family. It’s quite the homely bunch: Uncles Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), Darren (Luke Ford) and Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) make up a violent gang of armed robbers with family friend Baz (Joel Edgerton). Presiding over the litter is matriarch Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody (Jacki Weaver), who keeps her sons in check, whilst kissing them with a little more tongue than is strictly necessary. Animal Kingdom follows the ongoing conflict between the Cody Boys and the trigger happy armed response unit of the Victoria Police Force, headed by Senior Police Officer Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce).

From the very first frame, Michôd deftly pulls you into Animal Kingdom’s grimy underworld. The build up is slow and detached, the characters given time to breathe and the story unfold, until a sudden, brutal act sets in motion a series of increasingly violent events. Whilst this may be his cinematic debut, Michôd’s mastery of languid pacing, hypnotic slow motion photography and, perhaps most importantly, ambient sound, is telling. He manages to use all the tools at his disposal to build, at times, unbearable tension without resorting to cheap tricks, quick cutting or an intrusive soundtrack. The viewer is never cynically manipulated, but is instead subtly instilled with a palpable sense of dread. A car backing out of the drive, a knock at the door, a lipstick on a sink – these are Animal Kingdom’s set pieces. The thick, oppressive atmosphere, twinned with the perilous, minute-to-minute existence of every character, makes for a nerve shredding second act.

The ensemble are uniformly excellent, with all actors backing Michôd up with some astonishing work. From dead-eyed psychopath Pope to coked-up firebrand Craig, the Cody clan are all expertly realised, never once feeling like caricatures. Newcomer James Frecheville deserves a big shiny gold star for his painful, heartbreakingly honest turn as J, very much channeling the spirit of fresh-faced Michael Corleone into the body of an awkward Australian teen. Winning plaudits left, right and indeed centre is Jacki Weaver as Smurf, the fearsome mother of the clan. Her smile beautifully disguises her ruthless, Machiavellian intentions; making you a cup a tea one moment, signing your death warrant the next. Pearce does fine, understated work as pragmatic copper Leckie. Indeed, all the fringe players (most notably Dan Wyllie whose Ezra White is surely the most unscrupulous criminal lawyer since Sean Penn in Carlito’s Way) are fantastic. Michôd is careful to populate his story with real people and not what could just as easily have been the usual tired bunch of broad archetypes.

Animal Kingdom is an exceptionally well crafted piece of work. All the individual elements seem to fire, combining to make the best Australian film since Lantana and one of the essential films of 2011 so far.