Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Animal Kingdom

2010. Dir: David Michod. Starring: James Frecheville, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver and Ben Mendelsohn. ●●●●○

From Peter Weir to Gillian Armstrong to Nicole Kidman to Heath Ledger there is a proud heritage of Australian talent making it big in America. If there's any justice in the world of the cast and crew, as well as the director, of Animal Kingdom are about to join that lofty list of ex-pats. It's a movie that acts as a calling card, as well as being a wonderful achievement in itself.

The plot contains all the ingredients required for a modern tragedy in it's very literal sense. The characters manouvre themselves as driven by their flaws, but their passivity or otherwise, into doomed yet predicatable avenues. Essentially the movie looks inside a Melbourne-based crime family, as viewed through the semi-innocent eyes of newcomer James Frecheville. As "J" he moves in with his grandmother "Smurf" Cody just as the armed robbery squad begin to tighten their grip on his wayward uncles.

I won't say any more about the plot, it contains enough twists and turns to keep you guessing which of the family memebers will make it to the end credits, and to doubt the motivations and loyalties of the majority of the players.

The cast do a wonderful job. Jacki Weaver, as the dominant matriarch, is an incredible presence, certainly deserving of her Oscar nomination. Like Richard III she can "smile, and murder whilst she smiles", showing the determined strength of a lioness favouring her cubs. James Frecheville makes a odd decision in the lead role, virtually disappearing into himself, underplaying every line and with barely a flicker of emotion on his face. It's brave but it works, as an audience surrogate he displays the awe and teenage emptyness that resonates in the role.

The brothers - Ben Mendlesohn's brooding, violent "pope", Sullivan Stapleton's drug addled Craig and Luke Ford's out-of-his-depth Darren - are all uniquely drawn with strong characterisations. As drama goes you understand the motivations and consistency of each of their journeys. Only Guy Pearce as the stoic and sermonising cop out to get them gives a throwaway performance.

Of course that's likely, this is a story about the changing dynamics of a family, admittedly one deeply involved in reckless criminal behaviour. The writing, also by director David Michod, superbly outlines the depths to which the characters are able to go and the principles they are prepared to betray.

Not that there aren't issues with the piece, the 80's synth score is often over-bearing and there's an unfortunately tendency to add slow-motion to underscore depth in the action, however these are certainly forgiveable flaws.

Michod is the real hero of the piece, and will certainly be picked up by Hollywood for bigger projects in the future. I just hope that he can retain the control over the content that has made his debut so electrifying. Unmissable entertainment.

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