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Catching Up on 2010: Josh Reviews Animal Kingdom

March 2nd, 2011

I noticed the small Australian crime drama, Animal Kingdom, on many critics’ 2010 Top 10 Lists, so I decided to track the film down myself to take a look.

Whoa.  I was not at all prepared for the level of terrible spirit-crushing oppression contained in this joyless look at a family of Australian drug-dealers.  I can totally understand why many critics connected to the unique voice represented by this fierce film, but I found it tough to get through at times and, overall, a pretty dour movie-watching experience.

In the film’s opening scene, seventeen year-old J (for Joshua) discovers that his mother has died of a heroin overdose.  With nowhere else to go, he calls his grandmother Janine “Smurf” Cody (Jacki Weaver), and she agrees to take him in.  Very quickly, we discover what young J apparently already knew: that Janine and her sons are a pack of vicious criminals involved in drug-running and armed assaults.  Things get even more complicated when police detective Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce) begins pushing J to inform on his family.  Though Leckie’s intentions seem honorable — to pull J out of the terrible environment in which he’s living — he winds up putting J in the hot-seat with his family, particularly the brutal “Pope”.

Writer/director David Michod has crafted a tough, take-no-prisoners film.  Like J, we are thrust right into the proverbial lion’s den of this family and their fearsome matriarch.  Jacki Weaver’s performance as Janine is the highlight of the film.  At first she appears sweet and friendly to J, but once we see the way she kisses her sons (with uncomfortably lengthy kisses on the lips), it’s clear that this woman is somewhat off the reservation.  As the film unfolds, we learn that she might be the hardest, most dangerous member of the family.  It’s a powerhouse of a performance — Ms. Weaver creates a truly dangerous character.  We never know whether her face will be full of sweetness or of death.

James Frencheville does strong work in the lead role as J.  It’s a tough role.  J is pretty passive, with a deer-in-the-headlights look for most of the film, but once he does finally start to take action we really see Mr. Frencheville come to life.  (There’s one particular scene, late in the film, in which J breaks down in a bathroom, that is really emotional, powerful stuff, really well-played by Mr. Frencheville.)  I love Guy Pearce, and it’s great to see him in this film.  His detective is portrayed in marked contrast to the Cody family, yet Mr. Pearce gives him just enough ambiguity that we must wonder whether he truly has J’s best interests at heart.  I was also quite taken by Ben Mendelsohn’s work as “Pope,” the most outwardly brutal member of the family.  He plays a really scary villain!!

As much as I respect the great talent that was involved in bringing this story to life — with a well-written script that was skillfully brought to life by Mr. Minchod and his collaborators — I found the film fairly unpleasant to watch.  It is so full of horrible people doing horrible things — there’s barely a glimmer of hope for any of the characters — that after a while I felt the crushingly downbeat nature of the story start to get to me.  There’s only so much horror, as a viewer, that I can take.  There’s a scene, late in the film, in which Pope commits a truly terrible act — something really horrifying — that I found so hard to watch that I mentally checked out of the film at that point and started considering how many minutes were left.  On the one hand, the scene affected me so viscerally that I must praise the skill involved in creating a movie moment that could affect me so powerfully.  On the other hand, the moment so repulsed me that it really threw me right out of the story.  It was just a bit more than I could take.  That might just mean that I have a weak stomach (which isn’t necessarily the film-makers’ fault!) but that was my reaction nonetheless.

If you love brutal, street-level crime films, then Animal Kingdom just might be right up your alley.  But be warned: this is not a happy film!!

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