Australian cinema is in the middle of something of a resurgence lately, with films across a wide variety of genres gaining international recognition and new voices rising to be heard. One of the most promising of these is David Michod on the strength of his powerhouse debut, crime drama Animal Kingdom.
“Crooks always come undone. Always. One way or another.” So says J (newcomer James Frecheville) in his narration early on in Animal Kingdom as he is brought into his criminally-active extended family. And so the story goes – in an inexorable, if not always totally predictable, downward spiral to betrayal and death.
After his mother overdoses on heroin, J moves in with his grandmother, ‘Smurf’ (Jacki Weaver) and his four uncles, Barry (Joel Edgerton), Darren (Luke Ford), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and the absent Andrew ‘Pope’ (Ben Mendelsohn). When the police investigation of the fugitive Pope reaches boiling point, the family decides they need to react and the young J is caught in the middle.
In many ways, Animal Kingdom is a standard crime movie. You have the family, revenge, in-fighting and the usual escalation of events. But what elevates it is that Michod keeps the whole movie grounded in reality. With its casual Melbourne setting, unassuming costumes and low-key conversational tone, this feels like a familiar place – an underworld barely beneath the surface of any suburb. It is an approach that makes it all the more affecting.
The performances suit the aesthetic perfectly. From Frecheville’s remarkably assured monotone simplicity to Weaver’s disarmingly sweet matriarch to Mendelsohn’s more flashy croaking sociopath, these never feel like less than real people. Perhaps the stand-out performance among stand-outs is Guy Pearce as Detective Leckie. He subtly invests a massive amount into the little pauses, the silent beats, giving a depth and dramatic weight to even the most straightforward of exchanges. That Michod has been able to nurture such a powerhouse ensemble is testament to one hell of a burgeoning talent.
A top-drawer crime film, Animal Kingdom is an accomplished debut and one of the best Australian products in recent years. See it.
The DVD release from Madman includes a terrific ‘making of’ documentary that tracks the film from inception through to its triumphant bow at Sundance 2010, packed with very candid interviews, particularly Michod, who is both vulnerable and brave as he works through his debut. Also on the disc is Michod’s short film Crossbow starring Joel Edgerton and, uh, Lisa Chappell’s arse in what is effectively a practice run for Animal Kingdom in style and subject matter.
There’s also Director and Cast commentaries, an interview with Crime Writer Tom Noble and some trailers.
DIRECTOR(S): David Michôd | COUNTRY: Australia | YEAR 2009 | DISTRIBUTOR(S): Madman | RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes | ASPECT RATIO: 16:9 | REGION: 4 | DISCS: 2