Written and directed by David Michod, Animal Kingdom tells the story of a young man who is forced to live with his estranged grandmother following the drug overdose death of his mother. During his stay, he learns that his grandmother and uncles are part of a crime family that gets involved in all sorts of things as they’re evading the police. Based on real life Pettingill crime family from Melbourne in the late 1980s, it is a study of a young man’s discovery of the dark underworld. Starring Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, James Frecheville, Sullivan Stapleton, Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver, and Guy Pearce. Animal Kingdom is a haunting yet compelling crime drama from David Michod.
After his mother dies of a heroin overdose, Joshua “J” Cody (James Frecheville) is picked up by his estranged grandmother Janine “Smurf” Cody (Jacki Weaver) to live with her and his uncles. The eldest Andrew “Pope” Cody (Ben Mendelsohn) is missing while Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and the youngest Darren (Luke Ford) are living with their mother as they do crime with their friend Barry “Baz” Brown (Joel Edgerton). J knew what they were doing as he got a glimpse of what his family does. When Pope finally makes an appearance one night to meet with Baz, Baz reveals that he’s been watched by two detectives at his house asking for Pope’s whereabouts.
A further private meeting between Pope and Baz about what is next leads to disaster when the family is unsure what to do. J turns to his girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright) for help as Pope and his brothers decide to launch an attack on the two detectives who are looking for Pope. J decides to be involved as well by stealing a car for his uncles so they can launch the attack. The next day, J and his uncles were arrested as J is interrogated by a detective named Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce). J goes to Nicky and her family to stay the night as he’s later picked up by Darren and Pope to talk with their lawyer (Dan Wyllie) who gives J some instructions in case he’s questioned again.
J would have another interrogation with Leckie following another incident as Pope is aware that J is becoming a liability who will say anything to Leckie. Pope decides to get rid of some loose ends while J realizes how much trouble he is as he turns to Leckie. With Darren and Pope in trouble, it’s up to Smurf to settle things with help from corrupt officials as J is now a target. Yet, J has plans of his own to settle everything else that is going on.
The film is essentially a noir-like crime drama about a young man entering into this dark underworld where he has an idea of what his uncles do. Yet, he has no idea how eerie it is as he’s surrounded by uncles who are more troubled than he is. Even as his girlfriend is getting a chance to see what this underworld is while he’s being watched by a non-corrupt, good-hearted detective. Amidst all of this is his grandmother, a woman who is a maternal figure for all the people involved as she is just as corrupt and organized as her sons are. Though she isn’t a dangerous person, she is someone who can slime her way into getting what she wanted.
Writer/director David Michod definitely creates a soothing yet chilling mood with his script as it weaves it way into creating tension and chaos whenever something goes wrong. Even as it’s told early on from the perspective of J that includes some voice-over narration just to give an idea of what the family does and who they are. Michod’s direction is very stylish in terms of its mood and how he can create scenes that involve three or four actors. Notably an intimate moment between Detective Leckie and J where Leckie gives this great monologue about what J should do.
The direction also succeeds in how violence is portrayed. It’s not done in an overly-gore approach with a lot of films though it is intense and at times, bloody. Yet, it’s a bit more restrained due to what the characters are doing as they either go for revenge or just to take someone out of the picture. Michod creates something that is intriguing while allowing the audience to follow this young man as he becomes a liability for a world his late mother never wanted him to see. Overall, Michod creates an eerie yet captivating crime film that is really nothing like anything else.
Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw does an excellent job with the film‘s photography that is a bit de-saturated for its look. Yet, it works to maintain a noir-like style for the film including some eerie nighttime scenes around Melbourne. One of the best shots of the film is a scene near a desert during a confrontation between Craig and the police that is beautiful to watch. Editor Luke Doolan does a fantastic job with the film’s stylized yet hypnotic editing from some straightforward cutting montages and transitions. Even in some slow-motion yet enchanting montages to create the dark mood for the film as Doolan’s work is a real technical highlight.
Production designer Josephine Ford and art director Janie Parker do some really good work with the look of the homes and places that the characters live in. Notably the home of Smurf with its middle-class look with some really nice things. Even the museum where J and Smurf meet with a couple of lawyers in a great scene has something that is truly wonderful to see. Costume designer Cappi Ireland does an amazing job on the costumes from the casual-like clothing the men wear to the dresses that Smurf wears to complement her motherly personality.
Sound designer Sam Petty does a phenomenal job with the sound work in the film from the violent scenes to some location setting including the places in Melbourne. Even in scenes with cars and what goes on at home as Petty’s work is truly another of the film’s technical highlights. Music composer Antony Partos does a great job with the film’s brooding yet mesmerizing score. Notably with a plaintive piano and ambient textures to create a noir-like feel for the film as it is definitely a score that is really captivating to listen to. Even as the soundtrack includes a mixture of rock, dance music, and pop as it features a video of Air Supply’s All Out of Love.
The casting by Kirsty McGregor is superb with its array of memorable performances from its cast to its leading actors to smaller roles. Notable appearances in fantastic performances include Anna Lise Phillips as J’s barrister, Justin Rosniak as a corrupt cop that Smurf knows, Anthony Hayes as Leckie’s associate, Susan Prior as Nicky’s mother, Clayton Jacobson as Nicky’s father, and Mirrah Foulkes as Baz’s wife. Dan Wyllie is great as the family lawyer who is just as slimy as the Cody family with his ideas of what J should do. Laura Wheelwright is good as Nicky, J’s girlfriend who finds herself going deep into the dark world of his family unaware of how dark it is.
Joel Edgerton is superb as Baz, the family friend and organizer who is being watched as he suggests about what the family should do. Though it’s a small role, Edgerton really stands out as the least corruptible member of the crime team. Sullivan Stapleton is phenomenal as Craig, the most outgoing Cody family member who runs a drug thing on his own as he is also the most vulnerable in what is a fantastic performance. Luke Ford is very good as Darren, the youngest Cody brother who is also the least experienced as he tries to get J away from what is happening though is often in shock of what is going on.
Guy Pearce is amazing as Leckie, a good-natured detective who tries to get J to talk while reminding him of the dangers he is in as Pearce really plays the man just trying to what is right for everyone. James Frecheville is wonderful as J, the soft-spoken young man whose innocence is shattered once he enters into a dark underworld. Frecheville’s understated yet entrancing performance is really powerful as he plays a boy who just doesn’t want to be into this dark world. Ben Mendelsohn is great as Pope, the eldest Cody brother who is very quiet but also the most ruthless in how he does things. Even as Mendelsohn is someone who acts like a fraternal figure but his methods are very discomforting as it’s definitely a mesmerizing performance.
Finally, there’s Jacki Weaver in what is definitely an outstanding performance as Smurf. Weaver has this maternal soul in her in the way she loves her boys and the way she kisses them. Even when they’re in trouble, she charms her way into making sure they get out as if she’s the unsung leader of the group though she doesn’t do anything. It’s a superb performance from a woman known as a star in Australia as Weaver really brings a sense of warmth to a woman that is corrupt and dark.
Animal Kingdom is a magnificent and chilling crime film from David Michod featuring a phenomenal ensemble cast led by Jacki Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, James Frecheville, and Guy Pearce. Audiences who enjoy gripping yet exciting crime films will definitely see this as something different but entrancing to watch. Even in the way Michod presents his characters and their setting in a noir-like fashion. In the end, Animal Kingdom is one of 2010’s finest films as help remind audiences why Australian cinema can still brings surprises to an unsuspecting audience.
© thevoid99 2011