I have no idea why this didn’t get a Best Picture Oscar nomination this year, but it really should have done. Well, actually I have a pretty good idea why, but let’s not dwell on the Academy’s xenophobia, particularly when they’ve just awarded Britain rather nicely with their multiple awards for The King’s Speech.
Animal Kingdom is one of the best crime thrillers of the 21st Century so far: a searing, unsettling drama about a family of criminals in Melbourne, Australia. Caught up in the mess of this family is 17-year-old Joshua. He’s awkward, lonely and isn’t sure how to deal with the sudden death of his mum. She died of a drug overdose, and in the first scene of the film we see paramedics find her dead body while Joshua is sitting next to her watching television. He has nowhere else to go, so he phones his grandmother (who’s known within the family as ‘Mamma Smurf’); a woman his mother hasn’t associated herself with for many years.
Mamma Smurf turns a blind eye to the criminal activity of Joshua’s uncles, who always seem to be around her house planning their next drug transactions or cop beatings. When one of their group is shot by the police, they retaliate by coldly murdering two young coppers.
The family from then on is under the tight scrutiny of the law, headed by officer Leckie – a shrewd, moustached Guy Pearce. He knows Joshua is the weakest of the pack, and thinks the teenage boy may want a quick escape from his dangerous relatives. Pressure is put upon him from the police to testify, but this also puts his new-found naive girlfriend and her family in danger.
Though I started off the review by moaning about the lack of recognition the Academy has shown Animal Kingdom, it admittedly did give a nod to Jacki Weaver’s sweet but terrifying portrayal of Mamma Smurf. Although at first glance she’s just a kind mother looking after her sons, the last third of the film shows a very frightening side to her. Her choice to excuse the terrible crimes her sons commit (which become more personal as the film goes on) seems to give her conscience little or no moral anguish. She’s like a cuddly Hannibal Lecter.
James Frecheville is also startlingly good as Joshua. He plays the teenage boy as restrained and confused, a choice that could have easily lead to him appearing boring and stupid, but thankfully his acting abilities take the character off in a completely different direction. The emotional turmoil that isn’t felt by his grandma, and kept so hidden in his uncles as they carry out their crimes, is clearly bubbling away inside him. That’s when the really difficult questions come about. Should he turn to his family, or the law?
The most repulsive member of the clan is Pope – a leery, dodgy and sickly looking man (played to tremendous effect by Ben Mendelsohn). He isn’t as thuggishly violent as his fellow criminals, but has a clammy creepiness about him that pervades every scene he’s in. It is he who perpetrates one of the vilest acts in the film that makes Joshua question the part he plays in this hornets’ nest of murderers.
The film’s dull sense of foreboding is captured – or perhaps created by – a rumbling score from TV documentary composer Anthony Partos. The cinematography, shot with a bruised, aching beauty, complements the brooding intensity that permeates the drama. Every segment of the picture works perfectly, with the superb acting and the more technical stylistic attributes all gelling together to make a pitch-perfect disquieting experience that really gets under your skin.
It’s not every week we get a film so mature and assured as this, and when we do it’s unlikely to be a directorial debut. But writer/director David Michôd’s first film turns on the heat, leaving you scorched and shocked, but ultimately very satisfied. If you think your family is scary, try living with this bunch.
Good: A masterpiece. A troubling and tense look at the Australian underworld.
Bad: The dark tone may be too much for some, particularly the less-than-rosy ending.