Animal Kingdom Review


Last April, I spoke to Nash Edgerton, director of The Square, about his film and the state of Australian cinema. He told me to keep an eye out for Animal Kingdom, a gangster thriller in the vein of Goodfellas that would be coming out a few months later. I finally caught up with rookie director David Michod’s feature, and while I wouldn’t compare it to Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece in terms of quality, the narrative and structural similarities are apparent. It’s an intriguing picture that features some genuinely surprising twists, but it keeps you at an arm’s length emotionally, and that lack of a connection prevents it from reaching the lofty heights it aspires to.

The film follows the Cody family—a group of an Australian family of criminals—through the eyes of its youngest member—Josh, or J (James Frecheville). J’s mother has just overdosed, so he seeks out his estranged grandmother, Janine (Jacki Weaver), to take care of him. From there, he becomes more and more familiar with the illegal dealings of his uncles—the vicious, heartless Pope (Ben Mendelsohn); the somewhat dim-witted Darren (Luke Ford); and Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), who’s the most intense, and paranoid, of the bunch. J enjoys spending time with his new family, and generally chooses to turn a blind-eye to their crimes, but when the police decide to really crack down on the Codys, J is forced to think about whether or not he’s willing to go down with them.

The film’s plot is only marginally important, really. For a while, I wasn’t quite sure where this was going (and I wasn’t quite sure I liked it that way), but in presenting things the way he does, Michod is able to sustain tension throughout the film, as well as surprise us every once in a while. It’s a kind of gangster film that I, and I’m guessing many Americans, are unaccustomed to. There aren’t any big moments (excepting maybe the brilliant conclusion), and while I can look back at the film now and appreciate that, I have to admit that as I was watching, it tested my patience on occasion.

Animal Kingdom is being recognized most for Jacki Weaver’s performance, but I didn’t find all that much extraordinary about it. She’s good and has the perfect look for this part, but I think it’s a matter of the part just being incredibly juicy, rather than well-acted. She has this sort of hold on the men in her life that makes them do precisely what she wants them to without them even realizing. But perhaps her scariest attribute is her ability to toss you aside so easily when you no longer serve her interests.

I actually found Ben Mendelsohn’s to be the film’s standout performance. He’s an absolutely brutal individual, who isn’t afraid to do anything to anyone if it means keeping himself out of trouble. Yet, he’s very soft-spoken, and it appears that he genuinely wants to have a relationship with his nephew. The two contrasting sides to his personality are frightening, but great to watch.

As a writer and director, I think David Michod is definitely a talent to watch. We’ve seen films like this many times before, but he makes things his own with a deliberate pace, a number of visually interesting sequences (like the conclusion, which is framed in a fascinating way), and two very vivid characters. His direction is a little rough around the edges (I was a little turned off by the overreliance on slow-motion), but I’ll be in line when his next film makes its way stateside.

I guess the film Animal Kingdom reminded me of most was The Town. It’s very competently made—really, there’s little I can fault the film for technically—but it’s hard to muster up a ton of enthusiasm for it. Everything is good, but little about the film is great. And while that makes for an engaging two hours, it’s not necessarily the recipe for a film I’ll remember all that well.

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