“You’ve survived because you’ve been protected by the strong, but they’re not strong anymore.” So says Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce) to 17 year-old Joshua ‘J’ Cody (James Frecheville) during an interrogation scene of sorts in the Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom, which is a statement that really hits the nail on the head as to what the entire film is about.
It’s easy to think that the main focus of the story is the conflict taking place in Melbourne between a criminal family on the brink of imploding, and the Armed Robbery Squad, who shoots first and asks questions later, but that’s not the case. The real story is one of a young man’s survival, and finding his place in a world where a clear distinction between black and white doesn’t exist, and there are only shades of gray no matter which way he looks.
Unsure of what to do after his mother overdoses at the start of the film, J calls up his grandmother, Janine (Jacki Weaver), who he remembered took care of his grandfather’s funeral arrangements. With nowhere else to go, J agrees to go and stay with his grandmother, and his uncles, even though his mother had been keeping them all at a distance due to their criminal ties.
It’s during this time that we see just how influenced by his surroundings J becomes at his young age, as his uncles play the alpha-male roles, though in differing ways. His Uncle Barry (Joel Edgerton) almost seems to take the young boy under his wing, and out of the entire family, seems to be the one who believes it’s time to step out of the criminal shadows and into a more legit line of work. J’s fragile nature, and Barry’s fatherly guidance is best shown in a scene where they’re both in a restroom at a restaurant, and J starts to leave before washing his hands. His uncle quickly takes him aside, and almost takes him through the process of proper hygiene step by step, never looking down upon the boy for his lack of knowledge, but almost grooming him to head down the proper roads in life.
Of course, there must be conflict, and when tragedy strikes the family at the hands of the Armed Robbery Squad, J’s more dangerous, unrelenting Uncle Andrew (Ben Mendelsohn) believes it’s time to recruit his nephew into the family business, and help take revenge upon those who mean his family harm.
Survival is the theme that touches on everyone throughout the entire story, with J’s entire family always trying to do what it takes to make it through another day, no matter what the cost. At the same time, the police will do whatever it takes to bring down this organization in an attempt to keep the casualties to a minimum. J, on the other hand, is on his own, as to him, neither side looks to be on the right road to justice, and the list of people he can trust is shrinking by the moment.
Australian films have had two strong showings this year, both in the amazingly crafted thriller The Square, and now Animal Kingdom. Almost Shakespearean in the way it’s told, especially with the strong female presence of Weaver, who plays the matriarchal role with incredible precision, Animal Kingdom is a noteworthy directorial debut for David Michôd, who had been working on the screenplay on and off for the past decade. Michôd shows great promise, and also showed in this film that he isn’t afraid of taking chances, casting unknown Frecheville, in his acting debut, in the lead role.
While I wouldn’t go as far as to compare the film to Goodfellas, or other criminal classics, Animal Kingdom definitely is an incredibly well made film with lots going for it. The direction of the film shows great promise for a new face among Australian directors, and the acting is top notch. Of course, there are some negative aspects, with the main one being that the film loses some of its intensity heading into the final act, with a false climax of sorts that leads things into a slow-paced finale. While this isn‘t the kiss of death, it throws off the pacing enough to make the film feel as though it stumbles across the finish line instead of breaking through it in a heated sprint.
Back on the plus side, naming the film Animal Kingdom was no doubt one of the smartest moves as well (especially after seeing it was originally entitled J), as it really lets you know right from the start that you’re entering a dog eat dog world, where only the strong will survive, and the line between right and wrong is covered in so much bloodshed it‘s unrecognizable.
The audio, found in 5.1 Dolby Digital, comes through quite clear, with little to no problems distinguishing what’s being said, even with the accents of those involved. The music, gunfire, and dialogue are all completely audible, so there are no complaints to be had in that department. For those who do have problems with accents, the sub-titles option works wonders as well. The video, presenting in 16:9 2.35 format, looks great, with no darkness/light issues, and everything looking as clear as you could hope or need it to be in order to enjoy the film.
Making of – Here’s an intimidating special feature, as the making of portion of the extras comes in at a staggering one hour, eleven minutes long. Those who enjoyed the film will obviously be the ones who reap the most benefit from this featurette, though at the same time, would-be writers and directors will also likely want to take a look at this, as it’s incredibly in-depth, with lots of information coming from writer/director David Michôd.
Interviews – There are 18 minutes of interviews to be found here as well, ranging from Michôd to a handful of the actors in the film. Each talk about their experiences on the film, and such. Again, fans will likely want to see what the actors had to say about their parts and the film, so you can’t go wrong by adding so many perspectives.
Behind the Scenes – Roughly three minutes in length, this featurette just shows some behind the scene takes being shot, with no commentary, or any other type of vocals other than the ones that the actors actually are giving on set at the time.
Director’s Commentary – While you’ve heard a lot from him in the above features, you can’t get a much better look at a film than through the eyes of the man who spent the better part of a decade putting it together.
Animal Kingdom is a film that any fan of crime sagas should definitely check out. It’s a well told story of just how easy innocence can be influenced, targeted, or lost at any point, and just how easy it is to forget that survival is the most natural of instincts.
Sony Pictures Classics presents Animal Kingdom. Directed by: David Michôd . Starring: James Frecheville, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Gyu Pearce, Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver, Sullivan Stapleton. Running time: 112 minutes. Rating: R. Released on DVD: January 11, 2011.
Tags: Australia, crime, guy pearce, Joel Edgerton