SYNOPSIS: Following the death of his mother, the young 'J' Cody goes to live with his estranged gangster relatives. With conflict escalating between his family of criminals and the police's armed robbery division, J finds himself at the centre of a cold-blooded vengeance plot. As he naively navigates his way through the criminal underworld, he is forced to question where his loyalties lie as he tries to decipher who he can trust and who can protect him while struggling for his own survival.
You’ll never guess from watching ‘Animal Kingdom’ that it is in fact Australian writer/ director David Michod’s feature filmmaking debut after an auspicious start in award-winning shorts. A modern-day gangster noir that is also a fantastic slow-burner of a thriller, it won Michod the world cinema jury prize at Sundance in 2010 amid universally positive reviews – and since it did not get the honour of a theatrical release in Singapore, we urge you not to miss it on home video.
Fantastically acted by an ensemble Aussie cast comprising of Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn and Jacki Weaver, it is a grippingly told tale of the deadly war between a family in the Melbourne underworld and the city’s armed robbery squad. Instead of guns and bullets, the fight is one rooted in realism and psychology, as the unholy trinity of Darren (Luke Ford), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) pitted against the anarchic methods of the squad officers that hide behind the shield of their badge.
The only moral presence in the force might be Nathan Leckie (Pearce), who uses his wits more than his weapon. Nathan wants to use the Codys’ nephew Joshua (James Frecheville) against them, the latter having moved into the house with the three brothers and their matriarch of a mother Smurf (Weaver) after his mother overdoses on heroine. Michod tells the story from J’s perspective, thrust into this ‘animal kingdom’ where being caught between predator and prey might just cause him his life.
Most dangerous of the lot is Pope, whom we meet slightly later in the film, the sullen leader of the pack with crazy in his eyes and a penchant for Hawaiian shirts. There’s something disarming about him when we first meet him, but as J soon discovers, underneath that veneer is a coolly calculated psychopath. Like animals threatened in their own habitat, the Codys’ once peaceful existence is threatened by the cops’ relentless surveillance, waiting for that perfect opportunity to pounce upon any member of the family.
The consequences are neither pleasant nor pretty, but even before the more graphically disturbing scenes roll around, the tautly filmed scenes building up the tension between J and Pope are already unnerving. Neither trusts the other, especially not when J is being courted by the police as a witness against his uncles. Michod creates such a compelling atmosphere that you can’t quite help but feel an acute sense of danger for the ingenuous J and a distinct abhorrence for Pope.
Of course, the fact that these characters get under your skin is also testament to the actors’ brilliant acting. Mendelsohn is a class act in himself, his indelible performance so nuanced and complex that it draws you in like moths to a flame. Next to Mendelsohn, Frecheville looks a little too stilted for his own good, but the newcomer still acquits himself with a twitchy nervous portrayal of a teenager out of his league. And as Smurf, Weaver, who was the first actress Michod courted for the movie, blends both cheer and menace into a perfectly calibrated performance.
With such fine acting, an intelligent script, and some assured direction, ‘Animal Kingdom’ stands as one of the best Australian films we have ever seen. Don’t go in expecting the kind of violent crime flicks Hollywood does, but rather a well-plotted genre piece that paints a realistic and utterly mesmerising picture of a modern-day crime family.
If you have a whole hour to spare, then watch the ‘Making Of’, which is an extremely detailed feature on where Michod got his inspiration, how he got producer Liz Watts on board, how the actors/ actresses were chosen, and finally the challenges of shooting the movie on a thin budget.
The less patient folks might prefer the individual short interview snippets with David Michod, Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Jacki Weaver, James Frecheville, Laura Wheelwright, Sullivan Stapleton and Luke Ford, each giving a brief understanding of their character and their experience shooting the film.
Finally, to cap it off, go for the ‘Audio Commentary’ which pretty much places Michod’s comments in the making-of within the context of individual scenes in the film.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is nothing to shout about for a talky picture like this. Nonetheless, the dialogue is crisp and clear. Visuals are well-balanced in tone and colour, and the presentation is sharp.
DVD RATING :
Review by Gabriel Chong