ANIMAL KINGDOM is a fascinating but not flawless Australian crime thriller that has garnered critical acclaim, not least in a Best Supporting Actress nod for Jacki Weaver. The feature debut of writer-diretor, David Michod, it's the kind of movie that has so much ambition, and has so many individual moments of brilliance, that you can't wait to see what the director does next, even though the product before you is fairly raw.
The movie is loosely based on a true story of armed robbers in late 80s Melbourne. As we meet the characters, that era of armed robbers and corrupt police is coming to a close. The criminal Cody family is being hunted by the police, and once cornered, turn on each other. The film watches their disintegration and the shifting allegiances and power positions within the familial set-up. We see the weak killed; the under-estimated rise to the top; the old order removed and the so-called establishment side-lined. The nominal paterfamilias is "Pope" Cody (Ben Mendelsohn) - a man who we must assume was to be feared but who know, though still capable of extreme acts of violence - seems lost - uprooted - almost tragic. He is a man out of time. The world is moving on but he doesn't know what to do. His brothers are similarly adrift. Darren (Luke Ford) is scared and parasitical, just looking for another leader to cling to. Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) takes refuge in drugs. And into this mix comes "J" - their teenage nephew whose mum OD'ed and who looks brainless, comatose, and like a patsy in the making. But the REAL power in the family is the creepily over-emotionally involved mother, played by Jacki Weaver. A woman who'll call you "darling" and "love" while arranging your murder - a woman who epitomises the maternal survival instinct. It's a chilling and often blackly funny performance.
ANIMAL KINGDOM is at its best when it's documenting the shifting power-structure within the family and watching these apparently fearsome robbers looking ineffectual. I love that David Michod has the confidence NOT to turn this into a courtroom drama, even though the final third of the movie is all about a big case. Rather, he cares about the "before" and "after". The scheming, the prep, the digesting of the results. In that way, this becomes a movie that constantly pulls the rug out from under your expectations. It feels satisfyingly dense and hangs on several highly impressive performances - Jacki Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn and Guy Pearce as the cop. But the movie has its flaws. I regretted never seeing the family at the height of its power against which to contrast its fall. Sometimes, when the guys were being completely ineffectual, it felt implausible that they had ever committed the crimes they were accused of. At times, the plot felt too messy - too hard to disentangle. Sure, it's great for a director to trust his audience and introduce ambiguity - especially regarding the final scene. But earlier on, some of the exposition seemed murky to me. And finally, a lot of the film just seemed plain implausible. I didn't buy that the girlfriend's family would let her hang out with "J". I didn't buy how she exited the film. And I really didn't buy the transformation of "J" at the end of the film. Major problems. Still, for all that, this is a brave movie containing powerful performances, and I can't wait to see what David Michod does next.
ANIMAL KINGDOM played Sundance 2010 where it won the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema - Dramatic. It opened last year in the USA, Canada and Poland. It opened earlier this year in Spain and Finland and is currently on release in Denmark and the UK. It opens in France on April 27th. Jacki Weaver was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars and Golden Globes but lost to Melissa Leo for THE FIGHTER. She did however win at the National Board of Review awards.
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