Written and directed by David Michôd (making his feature-length debut), Animal Kingdom persuasively demonstrates that plenty of life still remains in the contemporary Australian film industry. Fundamentally the Australian Goodfellas in the suburbs of Melbourne, it ostensibly looks as if Animal Kingdom was specifically produced to capitalize on the recent success of the acclaimed TV show Underbelly. Truth be told, though, the picture was a decade-long passion project for Michôd, who spent years working on the script while often doubting the quality of his writing. Michôd’s insecurities may have persisted throughout filming and post-production, but his efforts have paid off in spades with this enthralling, thematically dense and award-winning masterpiece.
When his overprotective mother dies of a heroin overdose, socially withdrawn teenager Joshua (Frecheville) has little choice but to seek shelter with the very people his mother wanted to shield him from. Hesitantly moving in with his grandmother Janine (Weaver) and his uncles, Josh is drawn into a grim world of drugs and crime, struggling to maintain both his morality and his relationship with the sweet young Nicky (Wheelwright). Killings and police pressure bring about the beginning of the family’s unraveling, leaving Josh to choose his path and decide whether or not to partake in the lifestyle that neither he nor his late mother wanted. Into Josh’s life also steps Nathan Leckie (Pearce), a detective who’s optimistic that he can convince the impressionable teen to turn on his family and help bring the criminals to justice.
Unwaveringly bleak and visceral, Animal Kingdom was admittedly constructed using conventional genre parts, but the familiarity is overshadowed by brilliant execution and a unique Aussie flavor. Rather than providing a clichéd saga of a crime family with a coy newcomer learning the ropes as his innocence is shattered, Michôd adopted a more fresh-feeling batting stance; refusing to concentrate on the more glamorous mechanical aspects of the organized crime business like heists and shootouts. Instead, Michôd’s focus is on the perilous consequences of a criminal lifestyle and the effects of paranoia on a crime family. What’s most impressive about Michôd’s writing is that it does not sugar-coat the subject matter, nor is the material drenched in sentimentality. Animal Kingdom depicts a dreary, brutal world in a ruthless fashion, and any character — no matter how likeable or prominent — can be killed at any moment. Indeed, this veneer of sheer unpredictability generates a great deal of power, leading to a shocking climax. The dialogue, too, is not snappy or witty like a Martin Scorsese picture, but raw and realistic instead.
Comparisons to the works of Francis Ford Coppola and Scorsese are not unwarranted, since a lot of crime films of yesteryear appear to have influenced Animal Kingdom. The mood and atmosphere is different here, however, with the story being more intimate and personal, not to mention the protagonist has far more difficulty adapting to his new environment. Atmospherically and visually, Animal Kingdom is a home run. Over the past few years, Aussies have begat a handful of accomplished, gritty movies (see The Square), and Michôd’s efforts follow suit. The filmmaking here is not over-stylized or ostentatious; instead, it’s somewhat raw yet subtly enthralling, with a well-judged color palette and an accomplished sound mix that effortlessly encapsulates the look and ambience of Aussie suburbia. While the pacing is usually deliberate, it is confident, and Michôd does manage to quietly ensnare you in the narrative’s proceedings. Topping this off are the haunting melodies provided by composer Antony Partos, contributing to both the atmosphere and overall production’s power.
For her role of Janine, Jacki Weaver has received a lot of press — she was even nominated for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar. And my word, her performance is worth all the attention; it’s intense and focused, not to mention it genuinely feels like she is Janine. But do not let Weaver’s acclaim fool you into thinking she’s the only acting standout, since Animal Kingdom is packed to the rafters with exceptional performances. As Josh, newcomer James Frecheville is a real find; strong, subtle and believable. And as Pope, the de factor family leader, Ben Mendelsohn is utterly flesh-crawling. The horrible nature of Mendelsohn’s character is not derived from the things he does, but instead the genuinely unnerving demeanour that flawlessly permeated Mendelsohn’s performance. The most recognizable member of the cast is Guy Pearce (Memento, The Proposition), who’s completely convincing as Detective Leckie. The remainder of the cast, from Dan Wyllie to Joel Edgerton to Laura Wheelwright and beyond, are all exceptional — there is not a faulty performance to behold. After all, the movie received a staggering seven Australian Film Institute Award nominations just in the acting categories!
Speaking of the Australian Film Institute Awards, Animal Kingdom received a record-making 17 nominations in total, and won nine of them, including Best Film, Best Direction, Best Editing, Best Lead Actor, Best Lead Actress and Best Supporting Actor. Suffice it to say, Animal Kingdom is sublime from top to bottom; cobbling together a riveting and altogether powerful organized crime story that’s as good as anything Scorsese and Coppola have ever done.