Friday, 18 March 2011

Animal Kingdom (2010)

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer they say, but when your enemies are your uncles and your granny knows no boundaries when it comes to ‘little’ kisses, you can’t get much closer. Such is the premise of Animal Kingdom (2010), a breath stealing, heart pounding slap and punch of a movie. The plot is complex, yet concise, and makes the most of the occasional silences. The background on the characters is thrown at you prior to and during the title sequence. Joshua “J” Cody watches Deal or No Deal, whilst waiting for the paramedics to pronounce his mother dead. He is clearly more gripped with the outcome of the game-show than his mother’s life/death situation which explains more about their relationship than any vocabulary could. J's relatives are introduced through a series of black and white images. As the camera slowly zooms out the once indistinguishable creatures are revealed as a gang of bank robbers, captured on security cams during their various raids.

On paper, director David Michod is a cinematic novice, yet his ability suggests otherwise as he demonstrates a clear mastering of the craft. The camera lurks predatorily at floor level, sliding through doors, and waiting in cars like a detained and patient dog. Slow motion ensemble shots reveal the interactions of the family in style similar to that of a nature documentary and relative to the gangster tradition. The clan leave a Chinese restaurant Reservoir Dogs style, leaving the 'Little Green Bag' behind and replacing it with something altogether more searing, atmospheric and sinister.

As the pack diminishes, J struggles to find his place in the family unit and as the story unfolds the most barbarous characters rear their ugly heads. Ben Mendelsohn is perfectly horrifying as Andrew “Pope” Cody. Seemingly innocuous, he is blessed with the ability to turn from saint to sinner with a flick of a switch. The same can be said for Jackie Weaver, who gives a tremendous performance as subtly incestuous matriarch Janine (Smurf). I cannot recall another actress with the ability to switch from loving grandma to abominable monster by use of one single facial expression. However, I can recall moments as a child when I saw this look in my own mother during specific times of the month.

As a viewer, you feel somewhat betrayed by the contrast in Janine’s personalities. There are moments when she reveals her true identity as the unhinged lioness, nurturing and manipulating her cubs. You wouldn't put it past her to lick hjer cubs clean. As her house is raided and her sons arrested she sits pulling the string of her teabag. So above the law is she that the strength of her tea far outweighs any worries or concerns she has on criminality. Janine’s power is undisclosed yet wholly realised in the undercurrent left by her deceptive impression. In contrast to the feral nature of the protagonist’s family, there are genuinely touching examples of a conventional mother/daughter relationship and a mother’s struggle with how far you should let your teenage daughter go. It’s a testament to the directors skills that one deeply saddening and emotional scene involving J’s girlfriend is explained abundantly, yet without vocabulary or physical exertion on part of the actors.

The plotline and theme are not dissimilar to other bank-heist movies, but this one is without the bank-heist itself. In shifting the focus onto the family unit and hierarchal order, the film largely avoids tradition by prowling around humanity and its dark complexities. However, in moments of great intensity conventional thriller tactics are integrated, but they work incredibly well against a cerebral background. Of late, Animal Kingdom can be compared to Ben Affleck’s The Town (2010) and the Australian series Underbelly (2008). The aptitude of the screenplay recalls the familial jolt of Todd Field’s In The Bedroom (2001).

Newcomer, James Frecheville (above), does an immaculate job as J, the wide-eyed tie that binds the plot together. The uncertain narrator struggles with confidence throughout, but the unsolicited, lingering kiss of his grandmother Janine, unveils the beastly creature in our once kindly and soft-spoken hero who is ultimately able to reveal a bite that is so much bigger than his bark.

Animal Kingdom is the film of the year, so far.

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