I mean no disrespect in saying this, but Australia isn’t known for its cinema. So when an Australian film gets a global release that very fact leads you to believe one of two things. That either one of the very few stars (Peter Weir) have released a new film, or that you are in for something very special indeed. I say that, but thanks to critical types falling in love with films that just aren’t that special, I don’t know where I stand when a film does well on the festival circuit. I have fallen in love as much as I have exploded in a fit of rage. This is all because of the nature of world cinema and its tendency to be divisive, what I am saying is critical acclaim and adulation aren’t always signs that something is going be good just because the critics said so. The latest film to fall into the canon is the Australian film Animal Kingdom, a winner at the Sundance Film Festival 2010.
Animal Kingdom opens with Jason Cody sat waiting for the ambulance as his mother has died from an over dose. What follows is Jason being thrown into a powerful Melbourne crime family against his will. A family that doesn’t exactly keep to itself, I won’t spoil it any further than that. What follows is a tug of war between good and evil for Jason between his new family and a police officer. It’s not a complicated film by any means, and it doesn’t try to be anything deeper than it is, but at the same time it goes deeper than that. The lines between good and bad are blurred and endlessly interchangeable. The crime family which is simultaneously evil thanks as well as being well adjusted family members and a blood thirsty police force which is also looking out for our young protagonist.
Thanks to the interchangeable attributes of both parties it makes for a morally confused watch. Watching this crime film was unique as usually these types of films give in to the cliché and predictability to reveal coming a mile off. Admittedly Animal Kingdom doesn’t escape the fate of the crime movie cliché, every movie is guilty of this to varying levels but never could this be accused of being predictable. If anything it’s shockingly unpredictable thanks to the film constantly creating a comfort zone only for it to be shattered with brutal results. This is at its most shocking at the films climax which surprised me so much I may have to watch it again just to double check that I saw what I thought I saw.
That is indeed a great statement to the skills of the man at the helm of Animal Kingdom – David Michôd. At the beginning of the review, I stated that it takes a director or star for an Australian film to be noticed globally, well in Michôd we have a new name to add to that list. He both wrote and directed the story here, admittedly it’s a story in which some have struggled with or found difficult but the only thing that I had a hard time with is the very idea that people didn’t get on with this film. The running time feels relatively short because the pacing was somewhere near the balancing point between slow and short, not too long and far from short and its constantly shocking and tense in equal measure.
The story might be brilliantly constructed and paced, but that can all be easily undermined by the acting, this is a very real risk when the cast is full of unknowns and the brilliant Guy Pearce. As you expect from someone of Pearce’s calibre, he is excellent even if he is playing an Australian Commissioner Gordon, thankfully however he is just one of the many high points. But before I get into more of the glowing positives, I must talk about the only negative and a big negative it is too because it’s some bad writing that prevents one of the actors being great. This negative is Jason Cody. The reason why I have such problems with him is because he is one of these silent characters who are silent so the viewer can project there personality onto the viewing experience, that in my opinion is some lazy writing which doesn’t sit well with the rest of the film.
Other than that though, the central cast are all stellar with great performances from the aforementioned Guy Pearce as well as Sullivan Stapleton and Joel Edgerton. But the standout performances were twofold from the Oscar nominated Jackie Weaver who plays Janine Cody, the mother of this family. Weaver portrays the transformation from slightly over bearing mother hen to fully blown psychopath brilliantly. The second performance is from the terrifying Ben Mendelsohn who plays Pope. Mendelsohn provides one of the most genuinely frightening screen performances of the year that makes Hannibal Lecter seem like a pussy cat. Every time he was on screen he genuinely frightened me with an unpredictable brutality that needs to be seen to be believed.
Other than that though, the central cast are all stellar with great performances from the aforementioned Guy Pearce as well as Sullivan Stapleton and Joel Edgerton. But the standout performances were twofold from the Oscar nominated Jackie Weaver who plays Janine Cody, the mother of this family. Weaver portrays the transformation from slightly over bearing mother hen to fully blown psychopath brilliantly. The second performance is from the terrifying Ben Mendelsohn who plays Pope. Mendelsohn provides one of the most genuinely frightening screen performances that makes Hannibal Lecter seem like a pussy cat. Every time he was on screen he genuinely frightened me with an unpredictable brutality that needs to be seen to be believed.
Animal Kingdom might not get a release anywhere near as wide as Sanctum, the other recent Australian release, but that shouldn’t affect whether you see this movie or not. If you know of somewhere near you that is showing this film then I urge you to go. This is a genuinely awe inspiring debut film from David Michôd that simultaneously eschews genre stereotypes and clichés for an endlessly surprising and riveting watch that is will shock you thanks to the star turns from Ben Mendelsohn and Jackie Weaver. We have there’s a new name to add to the stars of Australian cinema, in Michôd we trust.