David Michod’s Animal Kingdom starring Ben Mendelsohn, Jacki Weaver, Guy Pearce, James Frecheville had its final screening at the Sundance Film Festival Thursday afternoon, leaving more than a few dozen disappointed wait-listers stuck until this summer to check out this terrific, seething crime drama. Luckily, this tireless minion of ScreenCrave was present and is here to whet your appetites for what’s surely going to be regarded as one of the best films to come out of Australia since John Hillcoat & Nick Cave’s The Proposition. Check out the review after the jump…
Animal Kingdom, Michod’s feature directorial debut, is a story about the intense loyalty, or lack thereof, among a family of professional criminals faced with their own undoing when the police stop playing fair. It is chock full of grossly understated tragedy, slowly bubbling from simmering tension to a roiling boil by the end. The film opens with 17-year-old Josh, helplessly sitting beside his mother as she silently dies of a heroin overdose. He is then taken in by his grandmother, known to her family as Smurf, who lives with her four sons, all partners in crime. Though the crimes for which they are wanted are never actually shown, it is suggested by stills from a bank robbery over the opening credits.
As they divide up their shares from the heist, they hear rumors that the task force assigned to shut down their operation is on the verge of being disbanded for failing to accomplish their goals. All they’ve got to do is lay low, and all their problems will disappear. However, just as he is forming an exit strategy from his life of crime, one of the brothers is gunned down by the police with no more warning than a casually shouted, “He’s got a gun!” Thus begins a back and forth of acts of revenge between the criminals and the police.
Caught in world in which he doesn’t belong, Josh finds himself being used by both sides in ways that could cost him more dearly than he can imagine. With no refuge or respite, Josh must look over both shoulders to protect himself from the police who will stop at nothing to win their war, and his psychotic, desperate uncles who stand to lose everything.
The performances in this film are so subtle, subdued, and engaging that it is easy to get lost in the deep and complex emotions wrought by the events, and every turn of the plot comes as a complete surprise. Each character’s sly machinations come off so naturally that the eventual barbarity of their outcomes is utterly shattering. James Frecheville, as Josh, shuffles through each scene, sullen and somber, with the weight of the world saddled upon him, barely able to conceal his terror. Jackie Weaver’s Grandma Smurf sustains a sweetness and unconditional love for her boys that only gets scarier as the film goes on. Guy Pearce plays the former angle of the good cop/bad cop duo so sublimely that his manipulative intentions practically go unnoticed. The standout performance of the film, however, belongs to Ben Mendelsohn as the eldest brother, Pope. Quiet and calculating, his demented, unhinged rage is barely concealed below his frighteningly blank surface.
Like every other aspect of the film, Adam Arkapaw’s photography is staggeringly inconspicuous. It allows Melbourne to be a unique setting, while maintaining the notion that such brutal actions could take place anywhere in the world. The violence in the film is always unexpected, abrupt and hideous, without any lingering examination or glorification. The film is eliberately paced, the ever-mounting tension prevents the film from dragging or feeling slow at any point. It is more than fair to say that Michael Mann could learn a thing or two from the craftsmanship of this film.
Animal Kingdom is a truly great film. Wrenching and tragic, this film takes the crime drama away from the crime itself and into the heart of the dynamics of families that, depending on your perspective, have too much or not enough love to allow each other to go on the way they have. Perfectly crafted, Animal Kingdom leaves the audience feeling like a frog in a pot of water, who couldn’t notice that the water was boiling until it was already too late.