It’s a jungle out there and only the strongest survive.
Image: Optimum Releasing
Animal Kingdom is another film that opened to critical acclaim at Sundance in January of last year and that has finally made its way across the larger pond to bless us here in ol’ Blighty. And my word was it worth the wait.
Loosely based on a true story, Animal Kingdom tells the tale of Joshua ‘J’ Cody (James Frechevile), who is entrusted into the care of his grandmother, Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody (Jacki Weaver), after his mother overdoses on heroin. Having had little contact with his family growing up, J is suddenly thrust into the criminal underworld as part of the most notorious crime family in Melbourne, consisting of the matriarch (Weaver) and her three boys, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford).
When Pope’s partner in crime is gunned down by police and the Cody family exact revenge, the natural family order is disrupted and young J must work out where exactly he fits in.
Australian productions don’t often get an international release and so expectations weren’t necessarily high walking into the screening. But, right from the get-go, Animal Kingdom lures you in.
From the opening scenes, in which J sits unflinchingly by his dead mother until the police arrive, you’re warned that the film is void of any sympathy or sentiment, and the movie perhaps prepares you to believe the unbelievable, as J subsequently calls his grandmother and callously informs her of her daughter's death, setting up a movie of adjustment, drama and further tragedy, with mind games thrown in for good measure.
The film is as its title suggests. As we delve deeper into the lives of the Cody family it’s clear that the mother has an indelible power over her pride: she enjoys welcoming kisses with her sons (who are evidently apprehensive); she brings the family back together when members are down and out; she delivers Goodfella-style monologues when times are tough, and she protects her babies when forces from outside, and within, threaten her territory. The boys fall in line accordingly.
It seems unfair to single out individual performances because the film boasts a brilliant cast that turns in a superb ensemble performance, but there’s no question that Jacki Weaver deserves the Oscar for best supporting actress. Her role is devilishly played and she remains dominant without ever being buried by all the testosterone surrounding her. Mendelsohn also deserves recognition for his portrayal of the severely disturbed, perverted, merciless older brother, Pope. Why he’s not nominated for an Academy Award, or the film for that matter, is beyond me.
My only criticism of the film is its lack of vigor, somehow, during a few significant moments, including the sequence in which the police shot one of the brothers. The editing and camerawork fail to capture the intensity of the scene, to the point where I thought the brother hadn't actually been fatally shot (sorry for the spoiler). But minor quibbles aside, it's an incredible achievement on such a modest budget for first-time feature film director David Michôd.
Best film of the year so far.