Tuesday afternoon, I was notified that I could take more than one guest to a private preview screening that night of the soon-to-be-released film, Animal Kingdom, but my colleague, Ling, had other plans, as did my sidekick, Greg. He told me that he needed to tune his sitar. If I have only one hard and fast rule in my life, it is never to come between a man and his sitar.
Therefore, only Milton and I attended the screening of this riveting drama about an underworld crime family set in Melbourne, Australia, that won the Grand Jury World Cinema prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It is the directing debut of filmmaker David Michôd who also wrote the screenplay. Neither of us had ever heard of him before, but if this first feature is any indication of his future films, we’re certain we’re going to be hearing a tremendous amount from him in the years ahead. He is a very talented writer-director.
Animal Kingdom is must-see viewing for fans of crime-genre films or the TV series The Sopranos, but unlike most films in this genre, Animal Kingdom does not glorify the crime world at all. It appears that anyone can ruthlessly turn on anyone at any time; not even family is considered sacred. As Milton said afterward, “A character could just walk into a room and I felt tension.” For two straight hours, we watched the story unfold and felt completely ill at ease, until the final shockingly unpredictable closing moment. Several members of the audience gasped. Milton and I ducked.
This is great filmmaking.
The story opens with a series of documentary-style black and white crime scene photos of a series of armed robberies, before entering the present where a hulking placid appearing youth named Joshua “J” Cody (James Frecheville, in an excellent screen debut) is sitting on a sofa watching TV. Underneath J’s blank stare is a bright young man who learns the rules in the animal kingdom of the criminal underworld very fast. Since J has no one else to turn to following the death of his mother, he reaches out to his estranged grandmother, Janine “Smurf” – brilliantly played by Jacki Weaver in a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination-worthy performance. Smurf is the cheerfully creepy tough as nails psychopathic mother of J’s three uncles, criminal sons his grandmother adores with such passion, she frequently touchy-feely interacts with them and kisses them fully on the mouth. This is serious ick factor to watch.
Smurf eagerly comes to her grandson’s rescue and takes him into the fold where J is quickly exposed to various aspects of the family business that he initially finds intriguing. His drug dealing uncle, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton, a Russell Crowe near look-alike when RC was younger, prettier and thinner), who samples far too much of his own merchandise, does seem thrilling. J also bonds with Baz Brown (Joel Edgerton), his Uncle Pope’s devoted best friend, who is determined to go straight. Pope, who is on the lam for a series of armed robberies, arranges secret meetings in public places with Baz, who urges Pope to quit crime in favor of following his lead, playing the stock market, but the criminal underworld is the only place Pope knows.
Following an unexpected death, Pope grows more menacing and unhinged. He is also determined to exact revenge. He masterminds a plan and enlists his brothers and nephew to partake. Almost as soon as these murders occur, the police zero in on Pope and his family. Veteran police detective Leckie (the reliably terrific Guy Pearce) recognizes young J as the missing piece of the puzzle that will grant him the opportunity to lock up violent Pope and his criminal brothers forever. First Leckie must win J’s allegiance, a task that proves arduous, even though J’s grandmother is willing to have extreme measures taken that will guarantee that her grandson will never appear in court to testify against her beloved sons. In addition, the volatile Pope performs an act of reckless cruelty that nearly breaks young J.
Ben Mendelsohn, who plays the villainous Pope is spot on. After attending a funeral, he notices his introverted younger brother, Darren (Luke Ford), is wearing a well cut suit. A conversation that starts innocently, borders on the sadistic as Pope hones in on defensive Darren’s possible homosexuality; a likely proclivity, that is never admitted, and would speak volumes about the youngest brother’s tortured psyche. Laura Wheelwright, who is J’s caring but foolish girlfriend, Nicky, is also very well cast. The most memorable character is the fiercest mother of the decade, Smurf. Afterward, when we were walking down the street, Milton insisted that Smurf reminded him so much of someone. I suggested Don Corleone crossed with Shirley Knight.
This captivating story’s plot is full of unanticipated twists and turns. Although the threat of violence hovers over every single frame, this is not a film where buckets of blood are spilled left, right and center. Blood is shed very efficiently and I appreciated that. The emphasis of this well told story is on character and plot, not endless in your face violence. In Animal Kingdom, less on-screen violence proved to be the right amount in a gripping film that makes the criminal underworld down under look far more scary than sexy. Animal Kingdom just seemed very real. It opens in New York and LA on August 13th.