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Criminals and other animals

  • 10 June 2010

Animal Kingdom (MA). Writer/director: David Michôd. Starring: Guy Pearce, Joel Edgerton, Sullivan Stapleton, Jacki Weaver, Luke Ford, Ben Mendelsohn, James Frecheville, Laura Wheelwright. Running time: 112 minutes

As I write I am listening to Australian/British pop duo Air Supply's 1980 hit 'All Out of Love' and thinking how it will never sound the same again. Two weeks ago I regarded this song with indifference as a saccharine soft rock ballad. Now I associate it with a chilling bleakness and a sense of dread like a lump of tar in my gut.

Animal Kingdom has that effect. This dark, powerful Australian film subverts expectations in a way that is not always kind. Its transformation of this song is one notable example — but more on that later.

From the outset the film toys with viewers' perceptions. In the opening shot, a teenage boy in school uniform sits on the couch next to an apparently sleeping woman. He stares slackly ahead at a television game show until, a moment later, paramedics make their way into the room. The boy continues to be distracted by Deal or No Deal as they try vainly to revive his mother. Clearly this is not your typical single-parent household.

Later that night, Joshua (portrayed with intense introversion by debutante Frecheville) phones his grandmother and tells her, somewhat nonchalantly, 'Mum's gone and OD'd, and she's died.' Grandma Janine Cody (Weaver) is sympathetic, but not surprised — it would appear this has been a long time coming. She invites Joshua ('J') to come live with her and his uncles. For the as-yet innocent teenager, a more destructive course could not have been plotted.

Animal Kingdom is a portrait of the vicious inhabitants of J's extended family and their criminal world. It's a place where, as signalled by the film's title, base appetites are indulged, and where the instinct to survive — and, by extension, to dominate or be dominated, as the situation demands — is barely curbed by any impulse towards civilisation. The film reveals the family's downfall, as well as J's own topple from innocence.

It lacks the flash and bang of Nine's Underbelly franchise — more subverted expectations? — but this is to its credit: in their place it offers a gloomy suburban realism that is augmented by the ominous truth, spoken by J in voiceover, that all crooks must live with the knowledge that they'll eventually come undone.