|James Frecheville and Guy Pearce in Animal Kingdom|
Let us be clear on this one, Animal Kingdom, the debut feature by Australian director David Michôd, can make for some seriously uncomfortable viewing. The name itself, deliberately evocative of the kind stock wildlife footage that’s usually accompanied by David Attenborough’s dulcet tones, conjures images of a hierarchical, predatory world, filled with habitual tensions and lingering sedition. As titles go, this one fits like a glove.
There remains a morbid fascination with watching those kinds of Sunday evening documentaries. Even as the most anthropomorphised of bounding mammals are calmly eviscerated by their relentless predators, the more censor-baiting scenes hidden by convenient long grass, we remain utterly transfixed as these animals are doggedly hunted down and ultimately destroyed by the same world which once granted them bountiful sanctuary. Here however, we aren’t saddled with a ridiculously monickered chipmunk or a menial task performing antelope as our protagonist, but seventeen year old Josh Cody (James Frecheville), or ‘J’ to his mates. His mother having helpfully kicked the bucket via a heroin OD in a compellingly dispassionate opening scene, young J trots off to live with the almost-to-good-to-be-true Grandma Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody (Jacki Weaver) and her band of miscreants (aka her sons, J’s uncles).
The uncles themselves provide much of the meat and bones of this here story, even going as far as to exhibit helpfully distinct character traits i.e. Craig Cody (Sullivan Stapleton), the mental jittery one, Darren Cody (Luke Ford), the hatefully spineless one and lastly Andrew ‘Pope’ Cody (Ben Mendelsohn), the quietly sociopathic one, and let’s not forget Pope’s best friend and partner in crime Barry ‘Baz’ Brown (Joel Edgerton); the stoic reformed one. It’s with these guys that the survival of the fittest and king of the jungle parallels are laid bare for all to see and as ex-armed robber types, it’s safe to say J doesn’t receive what could be called a particularly stable home environment, and soon enough he becomes embroiled in a tale of murder, vengeance and what it means to find one’s place in the world. Rather than rest on the neatly laid out formula, Michôd steps up and nurses some incredible performances out of the cast, seeding J’s world with an undercurrent of malicious intent and barely concealed layers of boundless violence. Rarely does the boy-against-the-world set up seem this subversive, every forward step taken proving only to unravel both his life and the lives of those around him.
|Jakie Weaver as Grandma Smurf in Animal Kingdom|
Mind you, Frecheville’s limits are occasionally stretched, his line in quiet mumbling wears a little thin by the closing act. On the whole however he performs admirably, rendering his numbness toward the world and those who inhabit it with palpable sense of anaesthesia. Mendelsohn, as eldest brother Pope, emerges as chief antagonist throughout, belting out a turn so convincing that it’s quite possible he could do this in his sleep. A creature of near pure instinct and soft spoken menace, his every move across the camera exaggerated into a slither sure to get your skin crawling. Surprise star of the show however arrives in the form of Jacki Weaver’s Grandma Smurf. At first appearing as nothing more than a mother blindly adoring her sons despite their criminal misdeeds, slowly but surely Smurf’s layers are peeled away until we finally catch a glimpse of the monster that lurks within - like mother, like sons after all. Throw in a solid appearance by one Guy Pearce as Detective Leckie (apparently going for ‘most ill advised moustache of the year’), providing some star power and just about the only character actually looking out for J to some degree, and that rounds off a mostly excellent cast.
But don’t let the label of ‘drama’ put you off seeing Animal Kingdom in any way. All the elements in this pot add up to a flavour that is firmly in good ol’ gangster territory. With most of the physical trauma associated with the genre swapped out in favour of psychological violence, what you get is a fascinating example of how to do gangster for a new generation, albeit without the sharp suits or bad cockney accents. Where Michôd decides to take us next is up for debate, but one would wager that if the man can make wildlife documentaries this electrifying, it’s bound to be one hell of a journey.
Animal Kingdom will be showing at Broadway until Thursday 10 March
Official Animal Kingdom movie website