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Criminals and other animals


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

Animal Kingdom, Sullivan Stapleton, Jackie WeaverAs 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.

J's outlaw uncles include jacked-up drug dealer Craig (Stapleton), and youthful Darren (Ford). When we first meet them, they and their criminal associate Barry Brown (Edgerton) are being stalked by a couple of smarmy cops, who are trying to flush out the gang's absent ringleader, J's uncle Andrew (Mendelsohn). The Codys' altercations with corrupt police soon provoke bloodshed, which escalates as the film progresses.

Janine presides over it all with an almost sexualised affection for her 'boys'. As Den mother she at first appears wholly to be a nurturer, but she is herself a deadly creature, especially when her young are in danger. When Janine smiles, she's also baring her teeth.

Then there's Andrew, who first reappears as a shadow skulking in the kitchen and gets no less frightening in full daylight. He is a hunted and harried animal and all the more dangerous for it. In Animal Kingdom's most extraordinary scene, J's girlfriend Nicky (Wheelwright) is seen curled up asleep on the Codys' couch. Like J she is an innocent, and at this moment we feel affection for her. But as the camera pans around, with dawning horror we learn we have been sharing Andrew's leering perspective. Mendelsohn is a fine actor in career best form, and in his stillness we are left in no doubt as to the nature of Andrew's thoughts — or of just what kind of beast he is.

The scene — soundtracked by and forever transmuting that aforementioned Air Supply song — foreshadows the film's most appalling atrocity.

This is a memorable but not uplifting film. Its one ray of hope comes in the shape of Pearce's Detective Leckie, white knight with a broom-bristle moustache who looks every bit like a young Jim Gordon, the upstanding Police Commissioner of Batman's otherwise corrupt world. His attempts to enlist J as witness against his family are tempered by a fatherly desire to save him. But only J can finally decide if he wants to be saved in this way.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by Melbourne's The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: Animal Kingdom, David Michôd, Guy Pearce, Joel Edgerton, Jackie Weaver, Luke Ford, Ben Mendelsohn



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Existing comments

As an aspirational supporter of Australian cinema, and as a fan of Eureka Street, the work of the reviewer, Tim Kroenert, and the acting chops of Guy Pearce, I read the Animal Kingdom review yesterday and decided to catch a session last night. What an experience: Weaver is a revelation and Mendelsohn captures the feared, fearful 'something missing' of the criminal apex predator. An excellent review of an excellent film, which sits comfortably with the likes of Two Hands, Chopper, Gettin' Square, The Hard Word, The Square etc. The futility of violence and the fearful 'underbelly' of dodgy family ties have rarely been so well covered outside of the US (Godfather franchise, Sopranos, Goodfellas etc.).

Barry Gittins | 11 June 2010  

a fabulous film, and spot-on review

louise | 11 June 2010  

Thanks for the great review, Tim. I've been waiting for your opinion of the film before deciding if I actually want to see it. There's been so much media hype I'd assumed it could not meet anyone's expectations, but it seems I was wrong. I particularly pleased to hear that it lacks 'the flash and bang' of Underbelly. Who needs any more of that!

Mary Manning | 11 June 2010  

Is there just ONE movie in all of Melbourne that is NOT dark, dank, depressing, deviant, degrading & ultimately damaging to the viewer? I have just returned from Zionazi Territory [Israel & Occupied Palestine ] & I am in dire need of something delightful ;-)


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