Animal Kingdom


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.Animal Kingdom 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: 4.5 stars
Review by Mark Lavercombe, 29th May 2010
Hoopla Factor: 4.0 stars


Unfortunately I don’t share Mark’s enthusiasm for this film. It is brilliant, in its own way, certainly – but in other regards it is completely unrewarding.

There’s a bleakness that hangs over Michôd’s film that simply cannot be understated. This is a dark, horrid tale, habited by very few decent characters. Mark is right – Weaver’s performance is certainly stunning, and one that lingers well after the film is over.Animal Kingdom Ben Mendelsohn may be frustratingly ubiquitous when it comes to Australian film, but I’ve never seen him put in a poor performance. Here, he is more menacing than we’ve ever seen before. In fact, everyone’s pretty darn evil.

The problem with all this darkness is that there’s no relief. There’s nothing to counteract the misery. Almost the entire cast of characters is horrible, and as Mark said, it’s hard to empathise with the innocent J because he remains so taciturn throughout proceedings. I hung out, waiting for some sort of seismic shift to occur, but as time passes, the narrative simply chugs along and everyone becomes a little bit more horrid. In some ways, it’s The Square multiplied ad infinitum – at least in Nash Edgerton’s film, there were likeable characters, even if the end result was rather downbeat.

In its defence, the screenplay brilliantly gives us insight into every single character – we get a glimpse of things from their own point of view, which helps us understand that these people are all human, not merely cut-outs, and perfectly illustrates how events can spiral out of control. On the other hand, there is one particular character introduced late in the piece that is given no introduction – something which jars only because the rest of the script is so well written.

The film is beautiful to watch, with a perfectly haunting soundtrack to match. The periodic slow motion montages are great, and really serve to ram home the hopelessness of the situation. As Mark alluded, there is a lot of rather horrendous violence inferred (and one particularly nightmarish scene is etched in my memory) but the film in no way exploits the grisliness of the acts.

I’d have to lump Animal Kingdom in the same pile as Dancer in the Dark and United 93, simply for the reason that I got nothing out of the viewing other than feeling pretty darn depressed afterwards. I’m not quite sure what point any of those three films are making, and whilst they are all top-notch flicks, I couldn’t possibly recommend them. I’m surprised that Animal Kingdom has received as warm a welcome as it has from audiences, though I’m glad. It’s shaping up to be quite a strong year for Aussie films. I just wish I could share everyone else’s enthusiasm for this one.

Rating: 4.0 stars
Review by Stuart Wilson, 8th July 2010
Hoopla Factor: 1.5 stars

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