During the hum-drudgery of the typical cinematic output from the Hollywood machine it is genuinely absorbing to come across a hidden gem, an atypical feature normally from an independent film-maker/production team that are interested in telling the next best story rather than turning a profit, are excited by characterisation and plot rather than brand recognition and in doing so create a wonderful piece of art that is infinitely more identifiable, recognisable and heartfelt than the popcorn munching fluff that is far to prolific in our multiplexes. Tonight’s feature is just such a title, made on a very restricted budget by an independent team in Australia it has managed, on the back of critical acclaim and numerous awards, to have broken well into the mainstream and has become quite the commercial success. It does not have the brand recognition or the resale bankability that a ‘major’ Hollywood studio would need to ensure commercial success, but what it does have is a gripping story told extremely well, and that, in my book, is infinitely superior and should be what all film-makers strive for.
Unlike many Hollywood films and indeed my last few reviews the plot to Animal Kingdom can’t be summed up in one sentence. It is a complex multilayered film that relies on its unfolding storyline to pull the audience into the claustrophobic predicament that the lead protagonist finds himself in – and in doing so creates a feeling of empathy that you not only live the ride, but question your own self on which course of action you would take. Seldom does a film involve you to such an extent, and when it does, it is something special.
We meet Joshua Cody, affectionately known as 'J', our protagonist, in the very first scene – he is sitting watching TV with a woman who appears to be sleeping next to him. It is a very casual opening, full of natural family values – only things are about to take a dramatic turn. The door bell rings and two paramedics rush in to attend to the woman, she is J’s mother and she has overdosed on heroine. As the paramedics go about trying in vain to save his mother’s life, J stands over them, eyes riveted to the TV screen .... This is an excellent little scene that neatly defines the lead character, whilst he is a family member, he is an outsider to it, with little feeling towards those around him - one of cold detachment. In his next scene he phones his estranged grandmother seeking help, his meek voice and unsure attitude encapsulate his dependence on others; he is lost, frightened and alone, both before his mother’s death and now even more so. It is these personality traits that we follow on J’s journey as he seeks to find solace in himself and the protection of others, which, it turns out, lead him further and further into danger with nowhere to turn and not knowing who to trust. The actor chosen to play this tortured soul was new boy James Frecheville, in what is his debut professional job. It proved to be a serendipitous choice as he was the same age as the character he plays and had little experience, which plays right into the lost aptitude needed to make the part succeed. He also physically fits the role, he is young looking, but has a large frame, watch as he slumps around, shoulders slouched, defeated and put upon, and certainly never showing any confidence, but looking all the while like a fully grown man – perfect for the part. He delivers his lines shyly, furtively and when needed without conviction this is particularly exciting to watch when he is being grilled by the police; he looks just like a rabbit caught in the headlights. But more than this, we get see him mature as the film progresses; he has his big break down moment, wonderfully realised; all snot and dribble, but equally as compelling is his pulling himself together afterwards – and from here we witness his transformation into something much more, not someone to fear, but certainly someone with more power that he had – his new found assertiveness is still tinged with those bunny eyes, but now there is fire behind them. And his final scene is one of full circle, a bringing home of all that he has experienced when finally/reluctantly he takes his place at the top.
There is no doubt that the film is about J, but it’s not about following J and his exploits, it puts J in situations and we watch as he tries to survive them, kind of like how real life just happens and you have to deal with it. And whilst the situations that happen are slightly coloured with ‘movie magic’ they are down to earth enough to bring home the reality of it all – gangster families notwithstanding the politics needed to survive in a hostile family is one that everyone can associate with in one form or another and this is where the skill of the story telling comes in; the gang aspects, the violence and the drugs take a very back seat to the way in which the family unit conducts itself, particularly around J. When he first comes into the family we are introduced to each family member and, at first, we are comfortable, even with their criminal nature as they are presented as up front and trustworthy – think Soprano’s, we know they are bad, but to our eyes they are the ‘good’ guys. Early scenes have a blackly comedic tone; Janine, or Smurf, is the mother who runs her family with a sweet smile and a near incestuous bent, Craig is seen high on cocaine jittering around the room, Darren is little older than J himself, and family friend Baz takes J on a drugs drop and gets embroiled in a car chase that ends up with J brandishing a pistol to frighten the wannabe’s off. The family unit seems quite succinct and friendly and we particularly warm to Baz, whose nature is not that of an armed bank robber but that of a caring father figure who wants to leave the ‘business’ and take up the stock market. The only one missing is Pope, who is hiding out due to the police taking a rather hard line, specifically the Major Crime Squad who have taken to killing their targets rather than arresting and charging them, shockingly reproduced just when you think things are going well, further cementing our belief that the ‘family’ are the ‘good’ guys. However, with the introduction of Pope back into the family, there is a gradual shift towards the sinister and one that will plunge our perceptions into the depths and one that will have J, and by association us, questioning our loyalties.
I have already sung the praises of James Frecheville, but unquestioningly the rest of the cast are uniformly excellent. Indeed two of the parts were written with specific actors in mind, the first was that of Smurf, who is played by Jacki Weaver. In short Weaver is genius in her role. When we first meet her she consoles J and allows him into her family unit despite the criminal activity that they are knee deep in. At first she seems quiet and in the background, with only small hints at the power she wealds, asking, and getting, kisses and hugs from her children, all grown, hardened men. But it is later in the film, when the family has suffered that we begin to see how hard she really is. But she doesn’t deliver with typical hardened attitude – this is no Mimi Maguire from Shameless, despite the similarities in looks – she enforces her views with a sweet threat that grabs your attention as much as if someone had just grabbed your nethers. When she says she “has been in this business, a very long time”, you believe her, and so do those around her and everyone listens and obeys her orders. Little wonder then she received and won so many accolades for her performance.
Next up is Pope, played with utter conviction by Ben Mendelsohn. Seldom have I seen such an air of malevolence played with such conviction that the character makes your skin crawl every time they are on screen, Dennis Hopper had it with Frank Booth in Blue Velvet and Mendelson has it here, in spades. Even the most simple scenes, when he is asking his brother Darren about his sexuality, or carrying Nicky (J’s girlfriend) to bed (in a horribly prophetic scene), the camera lingers on his actions as he imbues Pope with such menace that you really and truly do not know what he is going to do next. And the skilful script keeps you guessing on just where this character is going and what his motivations are towards anyone around him. It was Pope’s idea for J to steal the car so that the brothers can take bloody retribution and thus embroiling him in the crime, but later he berates Darren for not doing the job, when he was never asked – his mind is twisted and without a moral code – he murders on a whim and this makes him extremely dangerous. A thoroughly despicable man and played so well that you honestly loath him whenever he is on screen.
On the other side of the law is Guy Pearce as police lieutenant Nathan Leckie. Pearce’s body of work already contains an impressive amount of believable characters and what attracted him to this low budget affair was the authenticity of the script with regard police procedures; there is no ‘good cop/bad cop’ interrogations, just through the motions investigating. However, Pearce imbues Leckie with an authority that is hard to beat, he is the paragon of duty, trying his best to uphold the law, but to do that he uses J’s fears against him; he becomes as manipulative as that of Smurf’s family. And we, as the audience, begin to question which is the better ‘side’? Pearce’s ‘animal kingdom’ speech to J is one of the highlights of the film, pure conviction; it's a joy to watch.
Even the bit part actors acquit themselves with aplomb; Laura Wheelwright, another new comer, plays Nicky Henry whose constant teenage battling with her mother see her move closer and closer into the Cody family, with dire consequences, and she plays it with the same conviction as all the other actors; never once to you question the fact you are watching an actor, she it that believable. Equally Dan Wyllie as the family’s slimy lawyer Ezra White is someone to fear who puts the family before all else, including J. Sullivan Stapleton plays the last brother Craig Cody, he is a drug addled manic whose introduction looks, at first, to be comic relief, but this soon turns to paranoia and clear insanity as the film progresses to his ultimate fate.
Writer /director David Michôd drew his inspiration for the script on the real life Pettingill family of Melbourne, Australia, who were thoroughly disreputable criminal family that, in 1988, saw the acquittal of Trevor Pettingill for the murder of two Victoria police officers. His skill with the script is not concentrating on this central theme, but surrounding it with other criminal elements witnessed by J and dividing the loyalties of J to everything he sees. He so much wants to belong, but he doesn’t (yet) have the necessary skills to survive such a vicious lifestyle, he knows that, and critically the Cody clan know it, enabling them to manipulate his actions. As the film progresses and J is positioned well and truly between and rock and a hard place, he draws on hitherto unseen gumption to release him from this purgatory. And this is, perhaps the one weak spot of the film – after building J up to be this nervous, needing support character, his sudden backbone and resilience, even in this darkest hour, seem slightly out of character. And this small change dramatically alters our perception of J and I for one could, from this point on, see where the film was headed, though, my partner was still surprised by the ending. However, it is still a powerful ending in its own right and one that is justified by the means, and I certainly would not want it changed.
Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, mostly known for shorts and documentaries brings that very ‘realism’ to the film, it’s quite ‘matter of factly’ shot, enhancing the claustrophobia and placing the audience in the film. Antony Partos brings a deep pathos to the score with its heavy bass and tribal rhythms that seem to get under your skin. And editor Luke Doolan, again known mostly for shorts and documentaries, for the most part keeps everything tight – there is a very deceptive pace, one that seems leisurely but with plenty happening and only seemed to slow, slightly, in the third quarter of the film.
On the whole Animal Kingdom is a magnificent little film, rightly deserving of the many accolades heaped upon it – it is gritty and raw, uncompromising and unflinching, and a film that will have you discussing the salient points long after the credits have rolled.
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