Animal Kingdom (David Michod 2010) – Blu-ray review
Released on Monday 11th July, David Michod’s debut film Animal Kingdom the “second best movie of 2011 so far” – as voted by readers of this blog. A raft of extras helps to contextualise the real-life history behind an enigmatic, shocking Aussie crime film.
(David Michod, Aus, 2010)
An assured thriller that takes the American gangster movie out back (geddit?) for a suitably Aussie kicking
Discuss: Aussie cinema is good at depicting psychopaths because the nation was founded as a criminal colony. No? Too sweeping a generalisation? But there’s definitely something in the water when Animal Kingdom follows the likes of Chopper and Wolf Creek in creating realistic villains who are all the more terrifying for being garrulous and matey seconds before – and sometimes after – they maim you.
David Michod’s assured debut goes even further than those movies in showcasing the underbelly of the Aussie psyche. Here it’s not a lone wolf or loose cannon but an entire family in thrall to their jittery nerves, hair-trigger tempers and cold-blooded ruthlessness…and for once there’s a woman, a scary matriarch known as Smurf, who is as malevolent as her fellas. The set-up is borderline-satirical, and Michod has fun presenting the kind of dysfunction that you’d expect from Neighbours – but the switchback tone chills as readily as it conjures laughs. Not for nothing did a friend coin the name G’Dayfellas for this. It’s stunningly apt.
“Animal Kingdom presents the kind of dysfunction that you’d expect from Neighbours – but the switchback tone chills as readily as it conjures laughs. Call it G’Dayfellas…”
But Animal Kingdom is just as apt. This is, after all, a movie about tribal allegiances and Darwinist survival strategies, but also one set in a civilisation literally nestled on the edge of the wilderness. While it’s mostly a (sub)urban crime thriller one scene switches effortlessly to the frontier of the Outback with a Western-style shootout, and the evocative sound design never lets you forget that the creatures still own the land here.
David Michod’s ear for lingo creates a deadpan disconnect between the vile personalities and the blokey banter. J, the naive novice taken under his family’s wing, is warned not to speak to women about his criminal work because they “natter.” Somebody is described as having “lost the plot” with surreal understatement. A diffident interrogation scene is a marvel of unexpected comedy. But since nobody really communicates, the friendly tone can drop into a hectoring undertone with frightening ease. The Cody family are seen shooting up, snorting lines, hitting bongs – and somewhere in that chaos of stimulants, you sense why things are so fraught. The only common language is paranoid violence.
And with it comes genuine cinematic unpredictability. Michod is unafraid to parcel out shock deaths and tonal reversals throughout the film, using a deceptively gradual pace to unfurl his incident-packed plot. Best of all is a false ending of sorts, which appears to provide closure to everything we’ve seen but instead opens the door to a final act that’s weirder than anything seen so far.
Like Lantana, Animal Kingdom is an Aussie film whose genre basis is the foundation for fascinating character portraits. The family’s siblings are carefully delineated between feckless wastrel Darren, paranoid Craig, sensible adopted brother Bazza and the terrifying Pope – a performance by Ben Mendehlson whose heavy-lidded stillness hides a personality that feels only instinct and rage. And as Smurf, the Oscar-nominated Jacki Weaver might be pint-sized but this formidable matriarch smiles hide daggers – she has a way of furrowing her brow into a kind of stabbing insinuation that leaves you in no doubt why her sons are individually catastrophic but collectively menacing. With such strong personalities, the film’s masterstroke is to have newcomer James Frecheville play J as a deadpan enigma. Is he naive, dim-witted, or just dancing to a different drug that nobody has figured out yet?
Animal Kingdom is available on Blu-ray and DVD. Many thanks to Thinkjam for the film screener.