James Frencheville, Jacki Weaver, Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton, Mirrah Foulkes, Ben Mendelsohn, Guy Pearce, Dan Wyllie
R for violence, drug content and pervasive language
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Every nation has attempted to tackle the nature of organized crime in its own unique way. Although American crime thrillers are often more astute, and realistic, this doesn’t stop filmakers from trying to put their own stamps on the genre. Animal Kingdom is one of Australia’s attempts at such an endeavor.
The story is about naive young Josh (James Frecheville) forced to grow up too quickly when his mother overdoses on heroin and he’s forced to live with his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver) whose four sons are the sunshine of her life and who also happen to be criminals. When Josh enters their lives, Andrew (Ben Mendelsohn), Barry (Joel Edgerton), Darren (Luke Ford) and Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) are trying to live quietly and avoid the implication of impropriety shortly after a major job that has left Andrew in hiding and the others trying to appear disassociated while carrying on as a family.
After the police kill Barry in a frustrated attempt to flush out Andrew, they set off a killing spree that threatens to tear apart their happy, vicious little family. After being held by police in relation to the Cody family retaliation against two young cops, Josh is suspected of having turned states’ evidence, which puts him on Andrew’s radar and sends him into hiding for real. Yet even in witness protection, they know how to get to him and he returns home to admit he’s in over his head and to play nicely with the family to save his own neck.
The film relies heavily on archetype to tell its story. Director David Michôd does a fine job in his first feature creating a sense of familial interaction, yet borrows too liberally from other crime films to be original itself. Even the shock ending in Josh’s bedroom can’t alleviate the feeling that we’ve seen this film in countless other places before. The murder of innocence. Revenge. Counter-revenge. Counter-counter-revenge. Even the obligatory explanation of the film’s title causes the film to feel like his grasping for relevance.
The star of the film isn’t Frecheville whose performance is overly monotonic, but Edgerton whose Barry feels like the perfect older brother and mentor who could guide Josh down the right path. That he’s taken out of the picture so early feels like an attempt to pull the audience into the situation and celebrate the eventual retaliation. He’s a warm, giving actor who shows what the film could have been were his character in the entirety. Weaver’s performance is nothing groundbreaking, but it’s compelling in its aggressiveness. Sometimes it’s hard to believe this kind, generous mother is also a cold-blooded matriarch far more in control of her children’s delinquencies than we at first suspect. She’s a viper in a box full of garden snakes, but it’s all so forced by the Michôd’s screenplay that it almost makes her performance seem pushy.
Even Guy Pearace, who plays the kindly police inspector trying to turn Josh states’ evidence, feels at odds with his character. We know Pearce is a gifted actor and he tries desperately to underplay his character, but the paternal figure meant to replace Barry and thereby redeem Josh from his potentially devastating future doesn’t entirely work. Though, the one aspect of the film I respect more than the others, though perhaps a bit chauvanistically, is that in Josh’s life, the women are the controllers. They define his actions and point him down the path most dangerous. His mother. His grandmother. His girlfriend. They all have the potential to push him in the wrong direction. Yet, when a masculine figure enters his life, they fail to protect him either by dying, by threatening his life or not keeping him safe. It’s almost as if Michôd is trying to claim that the maternal influence can be a dangerous thing when placed in a position of power of a person like Josh.
Most crime thrillers use the paternal influence as the negative, but ultimately benevolent force in the lives of the younger generation. Animal Kingdom attempts to set the maternal influence in such an environment and comes very close to succeeding.
February 8, 2011