After taking the Sundance Film Festival by storm and winning its World Cinema Jury Prize: Dramatic, Australian writer/director David Michôd’s feature debut finally reaches our screens and will provoke thrills and despair in equal measures. A remarkable achievement for any filmmaker, that it was a labour of love for Michôd is evident, prompting predictions of greatness for a bright new star.
When Joshua ‘J’ Cody (James Frecheville) becomes ensnared in the world of his mother’s estranged relatives, he will quickly become accustomed to their criminal activity. However, when tension between the police and his uncles degenerates into violence, J must determine on whose side he stands. An honest cop (Guy Pearce as Leckie) wishes both to save him from his family and use him to put all of them behind bars, while crooked cops might just be out to kill him.
The opening sequence of Animal Kingdom makes the audience sit up and pay attention, and it is hard to imagine a sequence more effective at setting the scene for all that is to follow. Although further details can’t be provided without spoiling the effect, it is enough to say that one shouldn’t arrive late for their screening, nor be stuffing around with choc-tops or the power button of their mobile phone. Such an assured entrée promises great things for the remainder of the meal, and chef Michôd doesn’t let us down.
His world is a dark and dangerous one, in which the cops are as malignant as the crooks, and the value systems of those within feel completely foreign to those of us raised on the honest side of the law. The animal kingdom is set in and around the ‘normal’ world most viewers would be more familiar with, and this juxtaposition means some of the scenes are all the more powerful. J’s girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright) and her family provide him with a link to an existence he has never experienced, for example, and Nicky’s involvement in later events feels even more shocking because of this. It is sickening that this brutal and deadly family and their activities could be so close to the comfortable existence of all of us going about our daily business in Melbourne without realising.
Michôd’s film is also very carefully and deliberately constructed and filmed. His direction is measured, and he seems content for a quiet menace to develop that means his audience experiences the bleakness and negativity of his creation. No artifice or flashy ‘look-at-me’ moments detract from his milieu, and even when sudden and brutal violence is depicted, he favours a sense of reality rather than the overtly dramatic. Several characters are shot, for example, and never does the camera linger to see the effect of the bullet(s) – Michôd prefers to avoid close-ups that gloat in the violence.
His film would not be nearly as successful were he to have been unable to attract the calibre of actor that makes this great. The true standout is Jacki Weaver as the sociopathic matriarch of the crime family Cody, whose performance is rewarded by an incredible character; the result is a stunningly awful and twisted woman who won’t soon be forgotten. Her sons are uniformly well-played, with Ben Mendelsohn, Luke Ford and Sullivan Stapleton all turning in excellent performances. Joel Edgerton brings a degree of heart that the three Cody boys don’t quite possess, while the lead turn of unknown actor James Frecheville is perhaps marginally less inspiring. His ‘J’ is hard to engage with, providing the only barrier to the full experience Michôd is shooting for.
That Michôd is a novice feature filmmaker belies the skill and intensity he displays in creating a wonderful film about finding one’s place in the world. Highly recommended, Animal Kingdom is my favourite Australian film for some years.Rating: