Animal Kingdom
Reviewed in August 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: David Michôd. Cast: James Frecheville, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton, Jacki Weaver, Guy Pearce, Laura Wheelwright, Dan Wyllie, Justin Rosniak, Susan Prior, Clayton Jacobson, Anthony Hayes, Mirrah Foulkes, Anna Lise Phillips, Andy McPhee. Screenplay: David Michôd.
Twitter Capsule: Real story surprises that aren't "twists," taut acting, smart scene structures warrant return to crime-family well
For Glenn, my favorite teacher and buzz-builder around new Australian cinema, and for Dan C., for hooking me up and also inspiring me, all these years after he claims I inspired him.

Photo © 2010 Porchlight Films/Sony Pictures Classics
Almost everything in David Michôd's Animal Kingdom works from the standpoint of entertaining the audience and showcasing a thoughtful, vibrant, multifarious approach to shaping its scenes. That's quite a pair of accomplishments, much less for a first-time feature director who spent the better part of a decade trying to raise the money and assemble the cast for his twisted homefront refraction of crime as a way of life. The worst you could say about Animal Kingdom, and I doubt many people would bother, is that it never quite shakes the creeping redundancy that adheres these days to almost any return to the "crime dynasty" trope. Also, about two-thirds of the way in, Jacki Weaver starts giving the film's Standout Performance in almost too self-conscious a way, or else Michôd starts emanating a bit too much pride at how script, direction, and performance are conspiring to underplay and overplay the carnivorous soullessness of Weaver's Janine "Smurf" Cody. Weaver brings a genuinely disquieting sweetness to the part, the blithe air of the mum who loves nothing better than surrounding herself with her grown kids, even when they look itchy or bored in her living room (which is the least of these kids' problems, as it turns out).

Sony Pictures Classics is hoping people will compare Weaver here to Mo'Nique in Precious as indelible monster-mothers, regardless of the fact that Janine positively adores her offspring, albeit some more than others, and sometimes rather less so when circumstances make her adoration inconvenient to some more pressing purpose. Mary Jones, as we know, couldn't stand her only daughter. However, while the two characters thus follow opposite paths into the monstrosity of corrupt motherhood, and Weaver herself is as calculating a performer as Mo'Nique is bullishly intuitive, the roles do share the common trait of being so doted upon by the filmmakers that, as potent and compulsively watchable as I found them, their impact was a bit dulled by the eagerness with which their creators kept serving them up: Behold, our face of evil, our sublime terror-destroyer! Just as Mo'Nique's Mary interested me more when she was sweet-talking a social worker than when she was throwing televisions at her daughter, Weaver's Janine slays me more when she's applying a dewy, swabby, almost generic solicitude to the task of consoling her refreshingly sensiive brood of criminals than when she's showily kissing these kids on the mouth. Or when she trails a crusader for justice through a pop-bright supermarket and shoots them her patented look that says, "I'm a lynx. I'm a viper. I'll always win, and you'll always remember me. And I'd bet you anything, too, that I am making off with this movie."

Weaver's vivid enough that she would make off with Animal Kingdom if the whole film weren't so accomplished and insinuating in so many other ways. In fact, the movie shares the considerable virtues of its most vaunted performance, even if it also prompts some of the same vague reservations. Animal Kingdom may cover somewhat more familiar ground than it thinks, and it may risk being too pushy in its ostentatious refusals of certain clichés, though not all clichés. But (but!) that doesn't make the relative avoidance of banality any less invigorating in a project that could easily have felt like your thousandth trip through the same terrain. Michôd thinks in images, and he's as eager to show you, as M. Night Shyamalan was back in the (relative) glory days of The Sixth Sense, how he has constructed his scenes with an undisguised avidity for tense montage, heightened colors, suggestive mood and incident. The dialogue often crackles, as early as the first scene, when a high-school kid named Joshua, or "J" (James Frecheville) is calling his grandmother after discovering his own mother, her daughter, dead of an overdose. It's clear that J has no one else to call, and that he barely knows the person he is phoning. Wwhen he asks, "Do you remember where we live?" we get everything we need to know about the intensity of the estrangement between mother and daughter, which only seems more unnerving when we realize how little estrangement she permits between her and her male children, who she is constantly feeding, caressing, reassuring, seducing.

The reasons for all this we are soon to glean, but one of the many things I liked best about Animal Kingdom is that Michôd has no interest in drawing J and the audience into a gothically conceived spider's web of portentous self-seriousness. Here there be no lustrous, brooding romance of the transfixing outlaw. The Codys really are a home-based outfit, moving and reading each other with the sharkish confidence of the deeply practiced, and yet barely escaping their own shambolic potential as a Judd Apatow crew: men locked into behavioral patterns and self-conceptions that clearly aren't sustainable, which have made them all but powerless to move up and out of mommy's single-story house. Animal Kingdom builds galvanizing tension without ever relinquishing its unexpected, almost comic juxtapositions of the lethal and the quotidian. One especially remorseless family member, roused to an especially vile impulse after committing an especially repulsive crime, is blocked from chasing after his intended victim because, god damn it, he can't find his car keys anywhere in the living room. He doesn't search in the usual rabid rage of the stymied would-be murderer. The resourceful actor Ben Mendelsohn gives him instead the limp, slightly deflated air of a child who is used to misplacing things, coupled nonetheless to the equanimity of a criminal who's used to eventually finding his way back to fulfilling his venal stratagems.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that almost every scene in Animal Kingdom includes some shot, some edit or avoidance of edit, some lighting effect (often involving blown-out whites and hardened silhouettes), some performance gesture, or some sound element that breaks the scene out of the simplest grooves it might have obeyed. And yet, the intensified, ornate, but unpretentious technique never feels distracting: Michôd's crew make choices with the unflagging aim to enrich a corking yarn. Animal Kingdom is a strongly story-based experience, with throat-catching surprises that get you not because they are "twists" but because emotional logic, colliding agendas, or unexpected entrances and exits accumulate the kind of intensity that you wish thrillers would drum up more often. There's virtually no gore in the movie, no sex that I can remember, and remarkably little dawdling over hypodermics, lines of cocaine, or other worn-out leitmotifs of more hoarily conceived crime films. Instead, a white car parked mysteriously in the middle of a tree-lined street at night; an Air Supply video; an abrupt and oddly tense lesson in washing your hands after pissing in a urinal; a sudden suppression of sound as a SWAT team arrives in an unremodeled kitchen; the frontal shot of a family sedan as it backs slowly out of a suburban garage; the unexpected ringtone of a cell phone, playing at normal volume but at worryingly close range; the dead but resonant air between a cupped hand and a firm body, amidst a shocked, tentative, not-quite-embrace; these are the sources of menace, unease, and meaning in a movie that's as bracing as a more sensational thriller without having to be so obvious. Michôd doesn't pull in for close-ups as often as he might (though I do wish he'd ease up on the slow motion and digital-looking zooms), so the wider framings, the props, and the relative placement of his actors carry a lot more weight than a more hysterically or less confidently executed suspenser would foster.

The cast helps, quite a bit. Joel Edgerton, recently Cate Blanchett's Stanley Kowalski on stage and a shoo-in for "next Russell Crowe" status, gives an especially tense, offhandedly sympathetic performance as a not-quite-member of this clan, who are either above the local pecking order or slipping precipitously down it. Edgerton's character comes closest to knowing this, and he confronts Mendelsohn's foggy sadist on this issue in wholly believable terms in an overlit convenience store. Dialogue like "I don't have a computer" and "Craig's makin' a fuckin' fortune with the drug thing" have a quotidian charge in this scene that's funny, sad, and unexpected, even minus the crucial context of the scene that follows. It's a testament to the cast and the film that no one, including Michôd, ever seems focused on any of the upcoming upheavals in the narrative, which is why the present always feels super-charged and the subsequent shocks and surprises don't feel cushioned by heavy-handed premonition. The whole male cast, rather elegantly disheveled, fulfills the hint of the film's title much more imposingly than does Guy Pearce's literalizing monologue, which Michôd at least has the sense to downplay. The way these guys circle each other, holding stares or baring their chests as silent badges of membership in the pride, gives Animal Kingdom a persuasively leonine, rivalrous aspect without venturing beyond the plausible ways in which a cohort of adults, even lawless adults, might take up space in their matriarch's den.

Elsewhere in the cast, despite the caveats I voiced at the outset, Weaver really is a commanding asset to the movie. She must know what a great face she's got for this role, and she only makes her hard angles and enormous eyes more potent in the way she keeps saying "Sweetie," like she's Brenda Blethyn's evil sister, or like someone who just snacked on Brenda Blethyn. Like the star of Secrets & Lies, Weaver can sell herself a little hard, but she's also capable of remarkable force and subtlety. Meanwhile, if you're looking for a definition of gold-plated support from further down the credit roll, look how much frayed-nerve, slightly preoccupied, but hoping-against-hope decency Susan Prior and Clayton Jacobson conjure as the normal-joe parents of a teenaged daughter who becomes J's girlfriend. The girl, Nicky (Laura Wheelwright), impetuously asks her folks not to mind that her new flame doesn't just want but needs to spend the night in her room, or that his uncles have a weird way of turning up unannounced, and his peculiarly older "friends" have a strange way of being shot, their deaths covered on the nightly news. Prior, especially, shows us how she's fighting her gut to go along with Nicky's dubious but not obviously disastrous relationship; as leery as she is of J, she's obviously thinking more of Nicky and of herself than of him, playing a woman who is not comfortable genuflecting at the short-sighted wishes of a young girl, yet who clearly craves the affection of her daughter. It's a marginal but very moving portrait of maternal instincts thrown off their balance. Against such a foil, Weaver looks like a nightmare exaggeration of forsaken standards, but also, oddly, like a much more secure shepherd of her flock.

The one performance that lets the film down is that of newcomer James Frecheville, whose blank-faced, open-mouthed, stultified rendering of the central character could maybe be rationalized as the shock of the aggrieved or the poker face of the budding strategist. Mostly, though, he looks like a trepidatious neophyte amidst a cast of heavy-hitters (characters and actors alike), as though he's been dazed by the same headlights that hypnotized Quinton Aaron in The Blind Side. J ought to be at the center of things, exerting some presence if not actual fortitude; the part can accommodate a lot of stupefied gazing but not quite this much. Happily, the resolution of Animal Kingdom is so well plotted and choreographed that even the diffuse portrait of the protagonist cannot knock Michôd's vessel off its strong, meticulous course. Compared to the visually mundane, overwritten, and somewhat self-satisfied The Secret in Their Eyes—or that movie's even cruder, even haughtier cousin, The Girl with the Dragon TattooAnimal Kingdom knows how to weave and condense a narrative without just smutting it up in faux outrage against smut, and without pushing fat, obvious buttons of cultural history as an easy route to shorthanded "relevance." Animal Kingdom, in its sharp writing, deft playing, scrupulous mounting, and solid momentum, never looks like it's trying to flatter the arthouse or pander to a mass audience. Instead, it gratifies both schools of expectation by sticking to its own guns, as it were, and implicitly beggaring the question of whether these really are such different audiences after all: doesn't everyone want to see a compelling story, vividly peopled and proficiently executed? Animal Kingdom achieves this often elusive mission without giving the appearance of cutting itself to suit anyone's tastes but its own. Michôd, bless him, doesn't want to be Quentin Tarantino or Martin Scorsese, and why should he? He leaves himself room for improvement, yes, but in bigger news, he leaves himself nothing to prove. Grade: B+


VOR: (3)   (What is this?)
I've probably made clear by now that if the movie has an Achilles heel, it's the reluctance or else the inability to transcend the crime-family drama, or to escape its sense of broadly familiar archetypes. At the same time, as was the case with this year's French import Accomplices, I felt gratified to watch a thriller that didn't confuse an unadventurous embrace of genre with a lazy execution, a condescension to the form, or an inflated sense of its own superiority. If Michôd has an even greater film in him, and he might, Animal Kingdom might look in retrospect like a bright but incomplete debut. The three or four scenes that lead up to the memorable denouement corroborate that he still has a few puzzles to crack in terms of structure and pace. But, even if Animal Kingdom is as good as Michôd ever gets, it's an impressive peak to hit, especially so early. It falls short of the vibrant but stripped-down classicism of We Own the Night, but the sturdiness, color, and integrity everyone brings to the pulpy narrative are nothing to take for granted, either. The cinematography by Adam Arkapaw, who shot the eye-catching, prizewinning short film Jerrycan a few years ago, serves as a savory object-lesson in lighting a commercial thriller with care and panache that don't call undue attention to themselves. Such role-modeling of bold but unhistrionic technique characterizes Sam Petty's sound mix, too; professionalism like this is as welcome as it is, I predict, durable.


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Supporting Actress: Jacki Weaver

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Supporting Actress: Jacki Weaver

Other Awards:
Sundance Film Festival: Grand Jury Prize (World Cinema, Dramatic)
New York Film Critics Circle: Best First Film
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Supporting Actress (Weaver)
National Board of Review: Best Supporting Actress (Weaver)
Satellite Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Weaver)

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