Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver, Sullivan Stapleton, James Frecheville
(Sony Pictures Classic; US DVD: 18 Jan 2011)
When you come across it the first time, you start to feel sorry for a film like Animal Kingdom. This otherwise appealing Downunderworld crime thriller has all the makings of a post-modern noir. We’ve got the unusual setting (Australia’s outlaw aura circa the late ‘80s), a felonious family loaded with craven characterization, a police squad both sworn to protect the law but using any and all means - legal or not - to get the job down, and an orphaned teenager who is introduced to a decidedly seedier slice of Ozzy life. Taken together, we’ve got the Melbourne version of Mean Streets, a true life look at how equally craven cops and robbers played out in a land far away from the usual Tinseltown take.
Except, when viewed through such a prism, there really isn’t much that’s new or novel here. Luckily, DVD steps in allows for a necessary reevaluation. Because of undisciplined necessities like hype and pre-publicity, because of the invasion nature of opinion and the staunch belief in same, Animal Kingdom initially seemed like a letdown. But now, when seen again through the eyes (and commentary) of the director, David Michôd, we can forgive the minor flaws and appreciate the film for what it truly is - a reflection of life in a part of the world few fathom except for a cuddly koala or a Crocodile Dundee.
When his mother passes away from a heroin overdose, young Joshua “J” Cody is taken in by his enigmatic maternal grandmother, Janine the “Smurf”. She rules the roost in her small suburban home, guiding her criminally minded sons Andrew/“Pope”, Barry/“Baz”, Darren, and Craig through their various nefarious paces. They rob banks, and they are very good at it. On the right side of the badge is Leckie, a well meaning policeman who must contend with the criminals as well as the ‘shoot to kill’ antics of his cowboy compatriots. When one of the Codys is killed, Pope decides to get revenge. His actions get the department in a uproar, and force Leckie to zero in on “J” and his underage gal pal Nicky. If he can turn them, he can put the Codys away for a very long time indeed.
Thus begins the initial dilemma with Animal Kingdom. There are so many good elements about Michôd’s feature film debut that when it fails to make a more substantial impact, the sense of cinematic remorse overwhelms you. From the finely tuned performances - especially by sinister she-creature Jacki Weaver - to the grit and prison tattoo tendencies of the clan, there is an entire continent of content to appreciate. As a matter of fact, it’s safe to say that Animal Kingdom is unlike any recent Australian film in that it walks a fine line between the Ozploitation of the countries early motion picture stakes and the regular Hollywood helping of hero and villains. Spice it up with a bit of indie atmosphere and a bit of spatter here and there and you’ve got something that should really sizzle.
Yet, Animal Kingdom consistently underachieves - and most of the time, it is on purpose. In the DVD extras, Michôd makes it clear that he is working to avoid cliches and genre truisms, instead of embracing their audience recognizability. It happens a lot in the film. There are times when something that’s happening should make us feel more: more horrified; more sickened; more scared. Michôd’s way is more subtle, and when seen through renewed eyes, appears quite novel. The Codys are a terror - what they do implies an entire lifetime spent in service of the most baser human instincts. But because we get little of said scandal up on the screen, it initial seems unsure.
Of course, a stronger lead would help get us more involved. Young James Frecheville may have the body of an adult, but his mannerism is one of someone slightly stunted, perhaps even handicapped. His eyes are too close together and set too far back in his skull to look smart or serious. Instead, he’s often a clueless cog in a machine managing quite well without his lunkheaded looks. The same applies for the sensitive member of the clan, Darren (played by Luke Ford). Questioned about his sexuality to the point of distraction and reluctant to really get involved, he’s another weak link in an otherwise ripe anti-social chain. That just leaves other “brothers” Joel Edgerton and Sullivan Stapleton to pick up the slack, but compared to Ben Mendelsohn’s Pope, they’re lightweights.
The story, however, still suffers from being the typical tale of bad guys taking things way too personally and pulling the trigger when something a little more ‘strategic’ would do. Granted, the payback is definitely warranted, but such brutish tactics are guaranteed to do little except up the fatalistic ante by several pissed off policemen. Pope’s unbridled psychosis, matched with his sibling’s sheepish allegiance, guarantees a lot of cat and mouse, and for the most part, Michôd makes good use of it. This is especially true as we watch the pervert leer sickeningly at “J”‘s joyriding girlfriend.
And yet there is something unnerving about the whole experience, something suggesting a classic bubbling beneath the surface. Told through the eyes of a bored, directionless child and taken to Tarantino like heights of interpersonal horror, Michôd has forged an almost masterwork. If he had dialed down the broiling aimless swelter of the Aussie locales and, instead, delivered the kind of punk gut kick daring that drives such storylines, we’d be won over. We want Mama Smurf to be more like the Matron Firefly (from Devil’s Rejects) and less like a impish rogue with a smile full of sinister choppers. Pope is horrific, and so is his mom, but the rest of his relatives represent various stages of near non-existence.
Because he had so much to work with, Michôd’s movie frequently plays like a missed opportunity. While clearly understands the demands of the viewership, it is his version of the crime film we are finally faced with - for good and for bad. As the plot percolates along, as Guy Pearce’s macho man moustache makes him look less like a cop and more like a Village People interpretation of same, people die, blood oaths are sworn, and characters we clearly don’t completely understand act in ways that confuse us even further. As the opening credit sequence shot suggests, there is a pecking order to the natural world. In its original cinematic domain, this movie was clearly not king. Luckily, the digital realm steps in to help reset the array.