At its best, collaboration compounds collective strengths to produce wondrous results. More often – certainly in the case of an intrinsically collaborative art form like cinema – mediocrity is the outcome. In my experience, the great majority of movies, ‘mainstream’ or ‘arthouse’, are middling to crap, notwithstanding the mega bucks and effort invested in them.
Indeed, the movie-making process is so complex, with so many hands meddling in the mix, it’s a minor miracle when it all comes together – which it does, most assuredly, in the new Australian movie Animal Kingdom.
A buzz has been building around this movie since it was awarded the dramatic jury prize for world cinema at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival – dangerous, considering how often you end up feeling let down when you bring great expectations to the cinema with you. But Animal Kingdom gripped me from the opening scenes, and its hold only tightened as the film progressed.
Inspired by Melbourne’s 1988 Walsh Street murders, in which two young cops were randomly gunned down in an underworld revenge attack, Animal Kingdom is located in now-familiar territory – Melbourne’s ‘underbelly.’ Happily, though, it has little else in common with the sensationalist TV series of that name. Where TV’s Underbelly glamorizes the crims and their world of fast cars, fast chicks and ultra-violence, Animal Kingdom imposes a more realistic mundanity on its characters, which renders the inevitable murder scenes all the more chilling.
We enter the world of the crim family on which the movie focuses through 17-year-old Joshua (‘J’) – played by James Frecheville in a truly stunning debut performance – who is taken into the fold when his mother dies of a heroin overdose. Thus, the family is presented to us through J’s naïve eyes – a tremendously effective dramatic device, which both distances us from the Cody family and immerses us in their discordant milieu.
Discordant and how! The eldest of three siblings and the alpha male of the group, Pope (played with unsettling, subdued menace by Ben Mendelsohn), is an armed robber on the run from some rogue cops who want him dead; Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is a hyperactive speed-addicted drug dealer; and the youngest, Darren (Luke Ford), is a fledgling crim who seems a bit bewildered by it all. And they all still live at home with ma!
The family matriarch, Smurf (brilliantly played by Jackie Weaver in what must surely be a career-best performance), radiates sweetness and light and exerts a sternly calming influence on her volatile offspring, partly via a brand of perverse physical affection that is distinctly sexual, with manipulation at its core. We discover in a gradual and fascinating peeling back of the layers of her character that her role within the family far transcends the merely maternal – under her mother hen façade lurks a ruthless despot even more dangerous than her psychopath son, Pope.
There’s a slow-building tension about this film that knots your guts, ratcheted up when Pope ambushes and murders two cops in revenge for the killing of his mate and ‘business partner’ Baz (Joel Edgerton) in a drug raid gone wrong. This amounts to a declaration of war between the opposing forces, and innocent bystanders like J and his girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright) are drawn inexorably into its vortex.
Senior cop, Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce), seeks to offer J a path through the minefield of divided loyalties in which he finds himself. However, J soon discovers that there is no such thing as a safe haven; he is in a pit of vipers, and realises that he has to find his own way out…and in so doing, he ultimately moves the plot towards a resolution that is classical in form, yet unpredictable, and ingenious – exquisite, in fact – in its irony.
Writer/director David Michôd’s script provides his movie with a rock solid foundation – screenplays don’t come much better than this. His characters are brilliantly developed, the dialogue is flawless, and there is a sense of the authentic about the whole film that is clearly the fruit of thorough research and rigorous thought. Talent aside, there is just no substitute for the hard work and relentless pursuit of excellence that is behind Michôd’s screenplay.
Combine writing of this calibre with a top-notch team of actors, perfectly cast, who share the writer/director’s vision and sometimes, just sometimes, a special sort of alchemy results, yielding a work of extraordinary quality. This is one of those times.
Any just review of this movie would be incomplete without making mention of the outstanding soundtrack from internationally awarded composer Antony Partos. Soundtracks should not be intrusive, generally, their function being to subtly enhance dramatic tone and evoke emotion, without wresting attention away from the goings on onscreen. Partos’ score, however, demands to be noticed. In effect, his soundtrack is an invisible but profoundly present character integral to the drama.
This is landmark Aussie cinema that bursts through the confines of its genre: it is an ingenious crime thriller of the highest order, but it is also a riveting psychodrama that draws on the dynamics rife in any family or group controlled by a despotic puppetmaster – or mistress – and highlights in the most dramatic terms the damage that such dynamics can wreak.
Don’t miss this. Just don’t.
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