FILM RATING: 3 stars
Continuing my journey of late with Australian films (see my post on The Black Balloon), I just watched Animal Kingdom (2010) on Blu-ray this past week. Set and filmed in Melbourne, Australia, Animal Kingdom is a family crime drama along the lines of Heat (1995), The Town (2010), The Departed (2007), Point Break (1991), and Donnie Brasco (1999). But it’s a unique take on the genre from an Australian point of view. It even brings a bit of The Sopranos into the mix. First time writer/director David Michôd clearly brings his great love of crime dramas to bear with this story. While not as flashy and engaging as the classic movies I reference above, Animal Kingdom still brings a lot of interesting character study to the table.
Newcomer James Frecheville plays ‘J’, a 17-year old teenager who is forced to live with his extended family due to the death of his mother from a drug overdose. Turns out his family is filled with criminals led by his sweet but sinister matriarchal grandmother Janine, played with interesting finesse by Aussie actress Jacki Weaver. J moves in with his grandmother and her 3 sons, J’s uncles, played by Ben Mendelsohn, Luke Ford, and Sullivan Stapleton, who waste no time bringing J into the family business. Also part of this mix is Joel Edgerton, as a fellow bank robber and friend of Mendelsohn’s character “Pope”. Without giving too much of the story away, J goes through some growing pains as he deals with his new life in this different kind of family. As one of the detectives after Pope and the rest of his family, Guy Pierce’s “Leckie” wants to save J from a life of crime under the control of his grandmother. But what does J want?
Animal Kingdom is a fairly slow moving movie, spending a lot of time getting us into the inner familial workings and mindsets of this Melbourne crime family. We don’t really see any of the crimes that this band of brothers normally commits, just a small retaliation against the police. While this is interesting, much like the typical modern crime drama, this is probably where I felt Animal Kingdom was the weakest. While bank robberies, drug deals, and other criminal acts have been shown over and over in movies and television shows, I think its because we as viewers like seeing the adrenaline rush and camaraderie that comes with those activities. It helps pick up the pace and give us stakes. Since Animal Kingdom basically lacks that adrenaline, it never really got me into the story to where I cared emotionally all that much about this crime family. Still, the Cody family is interesting and the actors do a great job of each representing their characters. Where I think a bank robbery or two would’ve helped is in tying these various characters together for me. Instead, we mostly watch the slow deterioration of each of them as the film goes on.
The cinematography and production design both stand out on Animal Kingdom. I loved the house where the Cody’s reside, and the various sets and locations all add flavor to the film. Probably the strongest part of the production is the music by composer Antony Partos. The score for this film has a deep haunting and eery feel that gives the movie depth and tone that really helps tell the story. There are two scenes where music is front and center, with no dialogue and just visuals, and both really worked for me on an emotional level. I just wish there was more of that throughout the film and in the characters. Emotion is one of the key ingredients of film, television, and any storytelling for that matter. While there’s a fine line between too much and too little emotion, Animal Kingdom could have benefitted from a little more in my opinion. But overall, it’s a well made Aussie Indie film that is definitely worth seeing on Blu-ray. Ironically, my favorite parts of the Animal Kingdom experience were listening to and watching director David Michôd talk about the making of the film in the audio commentary and the special features. Michôd is a very sharp and caring filmmaker whose depth of soul really comes through in his discussions of his craft. Hopefully he’ll bring more of himself to his next film.