'Animal Kingdom' (UK Release: 25 Feb '11)
Director: David Michôd
Cast: James Frecheville, Jacki Weaver, Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn
If Australian crime drama 'Animal Kingdom' was a boxer, it would be one which chooses its punches carefully. Not a film that disgusted me with showy flashes of gore or gratuitous sex scenes but instead a film whose thought provoking subtlety and unique darkness left me reeling for quite some time.
'Animal Kingdom' begins with 17 year old Josh (aka "J", played by newcomer James Frecheville) sitting in front of a television, engrossed in a game show, as his mother is slumped beside him. Only the appearance of paramedics alerts us that his mother might not be just sleeping. After his mum is taken away, J turns to his grandmother, Janine Cody (Jacki Weaver) who invites J to live with the mafia-esque Cody clan - entrenching J in a family that his heroin-addicted mother never wanted him to be a part of - an ominous sign.
On the first day he spends with his armed robber uncles, a gun is thrust in to his hand and he is asked to exert his dominance during a road rage incident. Thus the film's metaphor (it's in the title and everything) begins to be spelled out. The Cody family are like a pride of lions, with Janine firmly established as a controlling alpha female - demonstrated by her lingering on-the-lips kisses with family members, somewhat reminiscent of 'The Manchurian Candidate'.
The film takes notable and surprising turns which I won't spoil but essentially, J is dragged further and further into the dark "survival of the fittest" world of the Codys. The police are not ones to offer respite, proving equally as unhinged as his family - aside from Guy Pearce's character, who seeks J's testimony in order to convict his uncles.
Pearce's character, Detective Senior Sergeant Leckie, explicitly sees J as the weak link of his family, one who is protected by his stronger family members. Frechville's reserved, almost muted character however comes into his own as he simply tries to survive as his life unravels.
J's grandmother Janine also underestimates the young man and Weaver's portrayal of the cold-blooded yet outwardly sweet "Grandma Smurf" was deservedly nominated for Best Supporting Actress at this year's Oscars. Not to say that she overshadows the rest of the cast, with impressive performances from each of the main players. Ben Mendelsohn as Andrew/"Pope", one of J's uncles, is equally as disconcerting as Janine but in a very different manner.
First time feature director (who also wrote the screenplay) David Michôd also impresses. His vision of intensity consumes the film, aided by Adam Arkapaw's subtle, creeping camera shots and Antony Partos' captivating score. Despite the slow burn during the opening of the film, the pacing of the film always keeps its viewers engaged.
Boston has become a hotspot for American crime dramas - with the likes of 'Mystic River, 'The Departed', 'Gone Baby Gone', and 'The Town' cropping up in recent years. Perhaps David Michôd's intriguing, haunting 'Animal Kingdom' will inspire a new generation of Melbourne crime films.
'Animal Kingdom' is on limited release across UK cinemas now.