by HELEN GEIB
Animal Kingdom is the promising feature filmmaking debut of Australian David Michod, who wrote and directed. It is set in Melbourne, home to the Cody family: matriarch Janine; sons Pope, Craig, and Darren; their longtime “business” partner Baz; and grandson Josh. The Cody family business is crime. The brothers and Baz specialize in armed robbery, Craig deals drugs on the side, and there are hints of other criminal activities. The family has a shady lawyer on retainer and Janine knows the right people to call when one of her boys is in trouble.
The 17 year old Josh (newcomer James Frecheville), who likes to be called “J,” comes to live with his grandmother at the beginning of the story. His mother, who had kept him apart from her family for many years for good reason, has overdosed on heroin. The timing is particularly unfortunate. The brothers and Baz have been living under intense police scrutiny for some little while and the strain is beginning to show.
The plot charts the family’s breakdown and J’s concomitant moral corruption.
The characterizations of the members of the extended Cody family circle is the script’s strong point. The writing is aided by the cohesive ensemble cast led by Jacki Weaver as Janine and Ben Mendelsohn as Pope. Although Frecheville’s performance is capable and J’s predicament is affecting, those two are the film’s most memorable characters.
That J should be overshadowed to some degree by the more colorful supporting characters isn’t surprising, even putting aside how good those characters/parts are. The result is built in to the central conceit behind J’s character arc. He’s withdrawn, passive, and inarticulate; a typical modern (male) teenager. One of the interesting things about the film is that J’s family situation makes his very ordinariness a tragic character flaw.
The plotting is Animal Kingdom‘s weak link. Some key plot points are implausible, others underdeveloped. The parts to do with the police- including the lone “good cop” character played by a woefully underutilized Guy Pearce- don’t hold up at all well. When information is withheld from the audience to create third-act suspense, the trade-off is to obscure key characters’ changing thoughts and emotions.
Michod’s direction carries the film past a lot of the rough spots. All of the Codys feel trapped and, ever-increasingly, desperate. Visually they are trapped by tight framing. The visual conventions of indie realism (source lighting, houses that look like normal people actually live in them, clothes ditto) make the story seem much more believable than it really is. The pacing is appropriately relentless (not rushed). In the end, it carries great emotional intensity.
Animal Kingdom is available on DVD and Blu-ray. Features, which appear to be the same on both release versions, are a commentary track by Michod; a Q&A with Michod, Weaver, and Frecheville; and a “making of.”
Other new releases this week: Buried, Freakonomics, Jack Goes Boating, Lebanon, Stone, Takers