The real strength of the film is in the supporting cast. James Frecheville, the young lead, is (presumably/hopefully) called upon to play a character essentially in a daze. As the film kicks off, his addict mother has overdosed, and he heads back to her family, a family of criminals. It is those criminals who make the film compelling.
Joel Edgerton* stands out in his relatively brief time on screen as the immensely likable Baz. It's is his character's presence that the entire film essentially hinges upon. Without his charm, the Cody family (Baz is the eldest son Pope's best friend and partner) is not one that can be empathized with. While they are criminals, Baz, their leader, is such a strong presence that it is easy to root for the crew from the start.
*Recognizable to many (for better or worse) as Owen Lars from the abysmal Star Wars prequels.
This is important because once that element is missing, the rest of the family begins to unravel, and it's not pretty. Once the shit hits the fan and the paranoia reaches a fever pitch, the brothers Cody begin to self-destruct fantastically. J's coke-fueled drug-dealing uncle, Craig, implodes before our eyes, and Sullivan Stapleton does his best to channel Ray Liotta when making this turn.
The performance that really makes the film though is that of Ben Mendelsohn as Pope. Pope's presence is an unnerving one. A sociopath at his core, the danger Pope poses to everyone around him lingers in the air, tension building uncomfortably, released intermittently and randomly through outbursts only to build right back up again almost instantaneously. Pope's desire to fit in with and ultimately be depended upon by his family and friends at first seems slightly pathetic but slowly this effort on his part shows evidence of his attempting to be a human--something he is in form only. The chaotic energy he brings to the film is frightening, and Mendelsohn brings unhinged to a seldom-seen cinematic level.
I would also be remiss if I made no mention of the performance of Jacki Weaver. The family had to get fucked up somehow, and it was her turn as the enabling mother who always wants to be in the middle of her boys' schemes and misdeeds. Her willingness to do anything for her boys, no matter the moral implications, is ultimately what sets the stage for their demise. As the movie progresses, her moral ambiguity gives way to a complete and utter amoral core, where she is willing to do anything to anyone to protect her sons, even if it means fucking her own grandson over.
As Guy Pearce's Detective Leckie tries to protect J, he ends up throwing him to the wolves that are his family. That is where Animal Kingdom sets itself apart from the standard crime drama fare. By the time, the end of the film rolls around the cub, J, either has to eat or be eaten.
Whether or not that particular element is intrinsically Australian (I'll refrain from stepping into the realm of cultural stereotyping, fun as I may find it to be), the film seems to be imbued with the lawlessness that we Americans tend to place upon the wild continent of Australia. There is a sparse, contemplative nature to the film that boldly compliments the narrative, a self-assured decision from the first-time feature-length writer/director David Michôd. This is an impressive debut to be sure, and it leaves me looking forward to an Australian film that doesn't even exist--Michôd's follow-up to Animal Kingdom.
Oh, and I totally forgot how hot Laura Wheelwright was in this movie until I rewatched the trailer.
|Ben Mendelsohn and Laura Wheelwright in Animal Kingdom|