Friday, February 4, 2011

Animal Kingdom

The DVD case for Animal Kingdom has a quote from a critic, calling this "Australia's answer to GoodFellas."  That's a bold statement.  It did win seven Australian Film Institute awards and was nominated for five more.  Granted, I don't know what it was up against in Australia --- did AC/DC or silverchair act in any movies this year? --- but that's still pretty impressive.  Jacki Weaver was even nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, so it's not just the Aussies that like this movie.  But this is America, home of the gangster movie.  How does Animal Kingdom stack up?

Joshua Cody's (James Frecheville) mother has died from a heroin overdose, so he goes to live with his estranged grandmother, "Smurf" Cody (Jacki Weaver).  Smurf is mother to one of the more notorious gangs in Australia.  Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), the eldest, is into armed robbery; Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is a major drug dealer; Darren (Luke Ford), the youngest, just kind of follows his brothers' lead; Baz Brown (Joel Edgerton), a brother by everything except blood, is Pope's partner in crime and appears to be the brains of the group.  Joshua is only eighteen, so he's not exactly running in the same circles as the other Codys, but their problems quickly become his own.

Around this time, the Melbourne task force for armed robbery was under a lot of pressure for apprehending a suspicious number of newly deceased suspects; they were approaching suspects (that were probably guilty) and, instead of arresting them, shooting them dead without cause.  Word on the street was that Pope is next on their list, so he is in hiding by the time Joshua moves in to the Cody house.  The street was wrong, though; it was another member of the gang that is shot dead by police, unarmed, in a grocery store parking lot.  That sort of aggression cannot go unchallenged in high stakes cops-and-robbers; the Codys decide to murder some police officers to send a message.  It's not like they aren't suspects, though, so the entire family gets picked up for questioning, including Joseph.  He hasn't been raised around crime, though, and the rest of the family starts to get nervous over what he may or may not have said.  Inspector Leckie (Guy Pearce) begins paying special attention to Joseph, which unnerves the Codys even more.  The film opens with a voice-over from Joseph, where he explains that all criminals are afraid, even if they don't realize it, because they all know that theirs will not be a happy ending.  How can Joseph live with people who fear him being used to hurt them?  How can family solve a problem like that?  Who will make the choices that must be made for survival?  Can they all live happily ever after?  All these questions, and more, will be answered in the next exciting episode of...Animal Kingdom!

...and we're back.  This isn't exactly the sort of plot you usually associate with GoodFellas, is it?  Right off the bat, the film starts off with a downer (heroin-dead mother) and it doesn't ever become fun.  Joshua never witnesses the perks of being a gangster.  There is no romanticizing a life of crime here.  Instead, this film focuses on what is typically the final third of any gangster film: the investigation and apprehension of the gang.  It does that very well, in fact.  The film is believable, the characters are cutthroat, and the pace suits the plot.  This is David Michod's feature film debut as a writer and/or director, and I was impressed with how well he told this story and how he handled the actors.

Speaking of actors, all good gangster movies need a few standout characters.  Despite his age, James Frecheville was very impressive in his feature film debut.  It's not like he put on an acting showcase or anything, but his performance might be one of the best sullen teenager bits I've ever seen; teens are surly and not terribly talkative to their families, and Frecheville captured that attitude perfectly.  He wasn't terribly interesting, but that wasn't his job.  The star of the movie was undoubtedly Ben Mendelsohn as Pope.  As a person, Mendelsohn looks unassuming, even a little nerdy.  He takes that awkwardness and transforms it into something creepy and frightening in this movie.  It's not even what he does (at least at first), it's how he stares at people.  Jacki Weaver's performance was also noteworthy; I was waiting for her Oscar-worthy moment for almost the entire film, but it was worth it when it came.  She was a creepy, cold-hearted bitch, and yet did it in a very motherly way.  The rest of the cast was good, but more or less filled their parts.  Nobody was bad, but there were only a few choice parts in the movie.  I would like to point out Guy Pearce's respectable mustache:
That's not teen surliness; it's cop 'stache envy

While I liked the characters, I was disappointed that I didn't actually get to see the rising action in this story.  Would it have been too much to ask for one armed robbery scene, or one drug deal gone bad?  Australian movies (the ones I have seen lately, anyway) seem intent on taking all the fun out of violent films.  Yes, this was impressively plausible.  The ending was pretty awesome, too.  I just wish the film had even one moment where things seemed all right, if only to contrast with the tense atmosphere of the rest of the movie.  I also would have liked to see more of Smurf in the movie; the idea of a mother actively supporting her gangster sons is an intriguing one, and I think her part could have been bigger.  You know, looking at it with a bit of distance, I suppose that this movie does share one thing in common with GoodFellas; both have main characters that are nowhere near as frightening or interesting as their crazy friends.

Despite that, this is definitely more character-driven than I expected.  Without that robbery gone bad or whatever to begin the film, Animal Kingdom latches on to the faults of each respective Cody brother as they handle this less than ideal situation.  I'm not a huge fan of voice-overs --- they are often tacked on because the movie is hard to understand otherwise --- but Joseph's bit at the start of the movie acts as the theme to the film, and was very well done.  If the movie had any variance in mood, or if Joseph was a more charismatic character, I think this movie would have moved from "worth viewing" to "seriously awesome." 

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