Animal Kingdom is the debut feature from Australian film director David Michôd starring newcomer James Frecheville, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce and Oscar nominated Jacki Weaver. Winner of the Dramatic Foreign Cinema Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in January last year, this Australian crime drama is a tense look at Melbourne’s criminal underbelly. The film revolves around ‘Jay’ (Frecheville) and his family of criminals; ‘Smurf’ (Weaver), ‘Pope’ (Mendelsohn), ‘Baz’ (Edgerton), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford). Complications arise when the family becomes involved with the murder of two policemen and Jay faces the issue of family ties and morality. The lines between right and wrong are blurred when the police become just as deceitful and immoral as the very criminals they are pursuing. Following along the vein of movies such as The Godfather and Goodfellas, this is a movie about a family of criminals and the idea that the brotherhood between them is a passionate but deadly one.
I feel at this point I should explain the title of the movie Animal Kingdom; it clearly refers to the natural world, its barbaric environment and its parallels with the criminal underground. All of this goes without saying, but this idea is so key to the movie that I feel I have explain this allegory and how it is developed throughout the film. For instance, one of the central themes throughout the movie is the conflict that goes on within a criminal’s mind, hereby embodied by the character of Baz. The film introduces early on that the one thought that constantly runs through a criminal’s mind is that eventually you will be caught or killed and that you can only ward off this inevitability for so long. In this sense a ‘survival of the fittest’ scenario emerges as those protecting and breaking the law fight each other and amongst themselves in a battle of dominance.
This is a strong movie that maintains a steady pace but does perhaps bite off more than it can chew at times, with too many subplots and parallel plots that makes it seem disjointed. The movie doesn’t really offer a concrete or cathartic ending, but in a manner of speaking that is the point. It reflects the turbulent life of a criminal and the way violence unrelentingly and unexpectedly interrupts their lives. Frecheville is superb in this movie in an understated and subtle way that suited a character that in my opinion was rather dry. Nonetheless his performance certainly complimented Weaver’s disturbingly brilliant one. Mendelsohn delivers an oscillating performance of a character that embodies a kinetic paranoia that verges on the sensationalist at times and evocative at others. In his role as Officer Leckie, Pearce is a more sincere version of his role as Exley in L.A. Confidential and although this role is rather minimal Pearce plays his part well as perhaps the only figure to represent decency and honesty in the entire movie.
A tense film that reminds you of the great independent Australian films that preceded this one and although borrowing from those movies in tone makes up for it original filmmaking and marvellous performances. Perhaps not as cohesive as it should have been and maybe lacking in identifiable characters, however, it is just the kind of interesting movie you would expect during the awards season, it probably won’t pick all that many awards but that doesn’t mean it is any less of a great movie.