At the Movies: “Animal Kingdom”

Last week, my roommate Dan invited me along to a free film screening down in the Lower East Side.  He invited me solely because the film in question was an Australian film, and he knows of my adoration for all things Oz.  The film in question, Animal Kingdom, was the feature-length debut of writer/director David Michod, and it was a doozie.

Animal Kingdom is the story of Joshua Cody (often called J), a young man who, through unfortunate circumstances, finds himself in the care of the extended family he so rarely saw growing up.  His mother had good reason for keeping her distance, as the rest of the Cody clan are among some of Melbourne’s most wanted.  His uncles–hot-headed Craig, feeble Darren, and ruthless Pope–are all dangerous in their own way.  Most threatening of all could well be his grandmother, Janine, a tiny woman so fond of her blue eyeshadow that she has earned the nickname Smurf.  Yet the connotations of friendship and innocence that the name arouses have no place in J’s world.  Soon his uncles have brought J into the fold, and it isn’t long before he realizes there is no easy way out.

Animal Kingdom is clearly a well-made film, though I’m not sure it’s one that I could see again.  I don’t think I’ve sat through a movie that heavy or draining since Munich.  It is very much a series of increasingly bad things happening to people–some deserving of their fates, but most not.  The only levity you can take from it is that it is so well-crafted.  Michod is a master at building tension, and his twisted  mind takes the story to many dark places, most of them unexpected.  He has excellent actors at his disposal.  Aussie film vets Joel Edgerton and Guy Pearce do excellent work with their supporting roles, playing an associate of the Codys and a determined detective, respectively.  James Frecheville turns in an accomplished debut performance as J.  Jacki Weaver has given Janine so many layers that as each one is peeled away, you feel like you’re seeing the character completely anew.  And Ben Mendelsohn is positively terrifying as Pope.  He brings the kind of dead-eyed menace to the screen that hasn’t been seen since Anthony Hopkins was taking the role of Hannibal Lecter seriously.  But Pope’s crimes are so much more commonplace that they become that much more horrid.

Part-L.A. Confidential, part-The Godfather, and plenty parts intense, I’d recommend Animal Kingdom…but just once.  Check out the trailer below.

~ T

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