Review: Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom is the first feature from writer/director David Michod and comes to us courtesy of Blue-Tongue Films, the Aussie filmmaking team established in 1996 by Joel and Nash Edgerton.  These are the same people who brought us the excellent film noir The Square (which, like Animal Kingdom, also starred brother Joel).  The next feature from Blue-Tongue will be Hesher, which is co-written by Michod and stars the likes of Natalie Portman with a long-haired and tattooed Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  It’ll be released in the U.S. in January, so this is definitely one to keep an eye on.

You can watch the crew’s collection of excellent shorts on their Youtube channel.  I highly recommend I Love Sarah Jane, which stars Mia Wasikowska of Alice in Wonderland and The Kids Are All Right.

Now that you’ve got the background, let’s discuss the film at hand.  I’d certainly call Animal Kingdom a suitable companion to The Square and I’d even venture to say it’s a better, more refreshing film since it feels far less familiar.  But maybe I’ve just seen Double Indemnity too many times.  All good noir is really just a derivative of that film.

Animal Kingdom opens with Josh, a quiet teen played admirably by James Frecheville in his acting debut, sitting in his home waiting for the paramedics to arrive and tend to his mother who has died of a heroin overdose.  Left with no other option, he jumps into the arms of his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver), who we soon learn is pulling the strings on a criminal puppet show with her four sons being the highly sought-after stars.  By “sought-after” I mean the police are right on their asses.

When the police take out one of the four uncles, it’s the remaining family members’ violent attempt to get even that starts a string of events that will ultimately determine who is the real king of this jungle.  In this case that jungle is the Australian Outback, which effectively leaves a bit of a personal stamp on the film.  It doesn’t feel like a story that could have taken place in New York City or Los Angeles.

This is the crime family Josh’s mother had consciously tried to keep him far away from, but she’s no longer here to protect him.  I don’t blame her, either.  Janine is absolutely bat-shit crazy, possibly the most demonic woman outside the Precious household or a certain Cuckoo’s Nest, and the unmistakeable queen bee of this criminal colony.

Michod does a remarkable job of keeping the focus on Josh without ever letting us lose touch of the surrounding characters, all of which are fairly developed. Frecheville goes about things with a dumbfounded look on his face, but it works in the sense that his character has no idea how to fit in amongst this crew of sadists and ingrates.

The most familiar face in the crowd is the beautifully moustached Guy Pearce as the detective on the case.  His presence creates an internal conflict for Josh, bringing his loyalty, morals and personal well-being into consideration.

Interesting musical choices are used throughout, but Michod seems a bit too fond of slow motion and too often goes for the overly dramatic moody blur affect.  Animal Kingdom is otherwise efficiently paced, consistently shocking and never predictable.

Animal Kingdom isn’t the type of film that’s going to contend for Oscars, but it’s the type of well-acted and wholly original work that should.  I mean, it clearly isn’t an American production but it still can’t contend for “Best Foreign Language Film” because the words are spoken in English.  How lame is that?  This caliber of criminal mastery is only being made in Australia these days.

Rating: 9/10

RIYL: No Country for Old Men, The Godfather, American History X.

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