Saturday, January 15, 2011

Animal Kingdom ***

Director: David Michôd
Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce
Jacki Weaver, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton, James Frecheville
Dan Wyllie, Laura Wheelwright, Justin Rosniak

Films that deal with crime either have a tendency to romanticize it or moralize it. It's surprising to see a movie that does neither and even more than that, actually takes a look at it from an "objective" point of view.
Animal Kingdom is a chilling family drama that just happens to have elements of crime in it. The film begins with the death of Jay's (Frecheville) mother. As if he'd been expecting this to happen at any moment, after the paramedics take his mom, he pragmatically grabs the phone and calls his grandma Janine (Weaver) to let her know he needs a place to stay.
He moves in with her and his uncles: armed robber Pope (Mendelsohn), drug dealer Craig (Stapleton) and soon-to-be criminal Darren (Ford).
Considering his mom dies from a heroin overdose and she'd tried to keep him away from her family, we understand that Jay has been raised under a different code of ethics and writer/director Michôd's first great step is establishing that we can not judge Jay or any of the other characters for that matter.
They all exist in a world where keeping the family together, regardless of their criminal activities, is more important than adjusting to societal rules.
Of course this means that they will clash with the rest of the world and as Jay explains "crooks always come undone, always". Things begin to spiral out of control when a group of detectives led by officer Leckie (Pearce) try to get Jay on their side in helping them stop his family, soon the young man find himself in the middle of a battle between law and family (not precisely right and wrong).
Coolly shot by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, who doesn't let his camera intrude, Animal Kingdom becomes a documentary of sorts as we merely observe these people act as their nature moves them to and this is ultimately what the film is about: people being driven merely by their instincts.
Frecheville's Jay serves as an ambiguous guide through this maze seeing how it's easy to deem him as too passive and be annoyed by him; however, taking a closer look we realize that he's not just an accessory, he's giving a simple but effective performance of someone under a lot of stress, channeling it in the only way he can.
In a way we see Jay develop something that resembles Stockholm Syndrome, as he becomes settled in his new life with his family. The double life we see him lead when he hangs out with his girlfriend (Wheelwright) gives the film a strange, surreal tone.
The rest of the cast is impressive with Mendelsohn creating a man who could represent some symbol of evil yet instead just chooses to be someone who's taken very bad decisions in life and is merely striving for survival.
Edgerton is strangely moving as their friend Barry Brown, while Stapleton delivers a heartbreaking performance, especially towards the end of the movie. However, it's Jacki Weaver who remains with you long after the film has ended.
Her Janine is someone who has adapted to a lifestyle that will help her provide for her boys. "I've been around a long time" she declares with a sweet smile when an accomplice is surprised by the reach of her influence. The way in which Weaver delivers her lines makes for a beautiful complex, given that, as with most of the film we don't know whether she's being psychotic or just "being".
However beyond the sometimes heartless actions and lovable "sweeties", we can see an entire history of pain in her eyes. Perhaps at one time she was just like Jay, being swallowed by a world she couldn't understand but had to be a part of to be with the people she loved.
"There are certain things you don't tell girls about" says family lawyer (Wyllie) to a confused Jay and in Janine's sensitive acknowledgement we know that this never really applied for her, at one moment she just had to make a choice. Weaver makes it impossible for us to believe that someone would just be born this way.


Candice Frederick said...

wow. sounds great. still need to see this.

Jose said...

It was pretty good Candice! I think the DVD comes out next week. Check it out!

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Damn, this one's so good. I've still got Stapleton's entire final scene playing on a loop in my head (so very good), and Frecheville is underrated, apparently it's his debut. I go back and forth with Weaver, between great and flawless. She's deserving of the nod, either way, but I still wish the film would get more love because unlike say Nicole in Rabbit Hole she's not not the BEST thing about the film she's in.

Not that that's her fault, though. She plays the role perfectly (and all those kisses to her sons.... *shudders*)