I've seen a lot of reviews for ANIMAL KINGDOM that try to ground it by comparisons to something more accessible. One called it an Australian GOODFELLAS. I've even heard it compared to Tarantino just because of its use of an Air Supply song. Likening ANIMAL KINGDOM to anything outside of Australia is complete idiocy. It's far from Scorsese and GOODFELLAS and a million miles away from anything Tarantino. It's completely in it's own world, without the pressures of conventional Hollywood pacing, character building or expectations. ANIMAL KINGDOM is a unique crime film in that it's bold enough to embrace the slow, sad and inevitable downfall of career criminals instead of the manic, intense and typically more cinematic rise. Michod's film is haunting and intelligent and will be weighing on my mind for some time to come; easily one of this year's best.
ANIMAL KINGDOM's opening credits feature security cam pictures of bank robbers, but that's all we see of our criminal families' successes. Our protagonist, young "J" Cody's voice over at the beginning of the film paints his criminal relatives as scared and anxious, knowing that the end will surely come as it does for all who lead a life of crime. The group's leader, Barry, is aware of this and he means to move toward a more legitimate life, but he's gunned down by renegade police officers, leaving the highly unstable "Pope" to care for the family.
I had a hard time figuring out where "J" fits within the story as he is essentially a blank slate. He does very little and seems very out of place, lacking any real presence, but if you think about the film within the context of the title, ANIMAL KINGDOM, you get a better sense of things. J is the baby of the group, the weak one, he doesn't have a sense of what his place is because that's decided by the stronger members of the gang. In the latter portion of the film, Sergeant Leckie (Guy Pearce) spells things out for J in terms of the natural world (as shown in the trailers). When his uncles go down for killing his girlfriend (the delusional Pope assumed she was talking to the police), J is forced to figure out his place in the food chain. He can go against them and live in fear, or he can help them and reclaim a spot in the family. He chooses the latter and when Leckie asks him "have you figured out where you fit yet?", we know that he has. In the end we also come to see Pope not as a strong protector, but as a dangerous liability whose decisions have brought the family to its ruin.
The performances in this film are all very strong. Supporting characters Barry, Craig and Darren (Joel Edgerton, Sullivan Stapleton, and Luke Ford) have limited screentime, but all impress by creating distinctive characters. Newcomer James Frecheville puts in a very restrained performance as J. The temptation to portray the character as emotional and angst-ridden must have been great. Instead J is devoid of feeling and intelligent thought throughout the film until the very end when he takes his place in the pack. Jacki Weaver gives an Oscar worthy supporting turn as Grandma Janine, whose function as the family matriarch is to protect them at all costs. Guy Pearce is also top-notch as usual. The most stunning performance though comes from journeyman actor Ben Mendelsohn as the disturbed Andrew "Pope" Cody. The apparent instability mixed with his vacant stares caused my stomach to tie in knots on several occasions. Overlooking him for a Best Supporting Actor nod would be a crime.
ANIMAL KINGDOM is also marked by its uniquely slow pace. It seems that most of the film is in slow-motion. This effect creates a feeling of tension in the viewer. At times I thought I was starting to get annoyed at the film when, in reality, the film was eliciting feelings of anxiety in me.
The film is also beautifully shot and the score is incredibly appropriate (more of that tension building). This is a great, albeit superior, companion piece to last year's THE SQUARE, directed by Nash Edgerton (brother of the above-mentioned actor Joel). Both films share that slow pacing and distinctive gritty look and are punctuated by startling violence.
My only gripe with ANIMAL KINGDOM is my own inability to process some of the Aussie-speak. It's a film I'd very much appreciate a second viewing of. When I get it on DVD I'll certainly appreciate some subtitles.