For anyone who still thinks Australia only produces boring films about the outback, Animal Kingdom should come as a welcome gunshot to the head. Here is a crime drama that makes Blue Murder and Underbelly appear about as confronting as an episode of Ship to Shore. It’s unflinching, gut wrenching and expertly executed, to the point where Samson and Delilah and Balibo seem like a light-hearted Nick Giannopoulos double feature by comparison. And it has me filled with such patriotic pride that I have been moved to fill the past three sentences with no less than six Aussie film and TV references. I’m getting it out of the way early, because simply calling Animal Kingdom “the best Australian film in years” is hardly enough praise for David Michôd’s brutal crime drama. This is a film worthy of the world stage; to limit its worth as simply an Australian export would be an insult.
That’s not to say Australian films are lacking in quality. Last year we were treated to Samson and Delilah, Lake Mungo and Mary and Max – three of the finest films this country has ever produced. It’s just that Animal Kingdom hits you deep in your gut, the way in which few films ever do, regardless of their nation of origin. I can’t recall the last time I was so captivated by a thriller; perhaps No Country for Old Men. You know the feeling – the growing dread, the sweat on the palm of your hands, the distress of the inevitable. You would bury your head in your hands, if only you could tear your eyes away.
Animal Kingdom is told from the perspective of Josh Cody (outstanding newcomer James Frecheville), a somewhat bewildered teenager caught in the middle of his family’s devastating cycle of revenge. Following the fatal overdose of his mother, Josh moves into the home of his estranged grandma Smurf (Jacki Weaver) and uncles Darren (Luke Ford) and Craig (Sullivan Stapleton). The newly orphaned teen finds the house to be the center of operations for the Cody crime syndicate. Darren and Craig, along with unstable older brother Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) and thoughtful family friend Baz (Joel Edgerton), once made up an unstoppable bank-robbing team. But the police are now well and truly on their tail – not even a brief hiatus from the life of crime will keep the Codys safe from justice. Tragedy strikes, and the family kicks into vengeance mode. As the death toll between the cops and robbers grows larger, Josh finds himself forced to pick a side. Does he dare align himself with the increasingly disturbed Pope and ferociously protective Smurf, or can he trust Senior Sergeant Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce) to pull him out of this mess?
Writer-director Michôd’s story seems to have been inspired by 1) the 1988 Walsh Street shootings, a real-life revenge play that took place in Melbourne and 2) William Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Titus Andronicus, a similar tale of retribution that gets way out of hand (Animal Kingdom is – thankfully – more restrained than Big Willie’s mutilation and cannibalism-happy drama). Amazingly, Michôd’s tale never dissolves into a sprawling mess. The events of his film progress naturally and the relationships always feel real (yes, even Smurf’s disturbing proclivity for kissing her sons on the mouth).
Michôd’s astoundingly assured direction separates this film from traditional crime dramas. These days, hand a director a screenplay for a movie about criminals, and they’ll either turn it into a over-inflated epic brimming with self-importance, or a flashy, trashy, substance-free montage of blood and boobs (see: every episode of Underbelly). Michôd’s direction instead recalls the work of Gus Van Sant, particularly his dreamy 2007 picture Paranoid Park. He’s a fitting director to draw inspiration from; few filmmakers understand teenagers like Van Sant, and now, the same can be said for Michôd. In fact, Animal Kingdom can be read as a tale of a boy becoming a man. The film begins with brief narration from Frecheville’s Josh, in which he explains how the events we are about to witness simply happened around him, as if he is trying to paint himself as an innocent spectator – a young boy who didn’t know any better. As the film progresses, we see just how intricately involved Josh is with the whole ordeal, culminating in a shocking finale – or shall we call it ‘a coming of age’. Needless to say, the haunting memory of that opening narration will remain a disturbing worm in your brain.
Frecheville’s performance is not the only stunner. Mendelsohn, Sullivan, Ford, Edgerton and Weaver all convey the different sides of the criminal coin with uncanny proficiency. Have these five actors ever been better than they are here? Pearce is also suitably understated as Sgt. Leckie. I haven’t even mentioned the many other Aussie actors who also give pitch-perfect performances in their minor roles. The whole film feels like a showcase for home-grown talent. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw constructs some vivid and lingering shots, while editor Luke Doolan (Oscar nominated director of short film Miracle Fish) creates some of the most intense sequences this side of Zodiac. Everyone brings their A-game. They know it won’t be long before the rest of the world sits up and takes notice of just how spectacular Animal Kingdom is. Thankfully, we Aussies get to enjoy it first.
Animal Kingdom opens across Australia June 3rd.