Animal Kingdom is an unusual crime film in that the focus is not on any of the particular crimes committed by the crime family itself. Held together by motherly Smurf (Academy Award nominee Jackie Weaver), the boys (all but one fully grown men) try to hide out from the heat of a criminal investigator in the wake of one of them being shot at point blank range by the police. Josh (James Frecheville) is a seventeen year old orphan and, conveniently, the biological grandson of Smurf. His mother died of a heroin overdose giving him no option but to move in with the crime family his late mother shielded him from. My initial reaction to the film was confusion. The pacing was so off from what I expected. Excluding still shots of a robbery during the opening credits, it took nearly twenty minutes for any sort of crime to be committed and it is such a non-event on screen that you could literally blink and miss it. The film rolls out in waves of emotion, not peaking until death strikes the family, and then quickly retaliating in wild and unpredictable ways. Once I caught on to what first time writer/director David Michod was trying to do, I started to enjoy myself.
In a nice little twist on the formula, the characters in the film do not say anything more than they could about their plans because they know they are being watched. Bugs are found and plain-clothes police are greeted with a smile and a wave. This simultaneously creates a sense of intimacy with the family--we're trusted enough to know what their secrets are without even being told--and a strong sense of suspense--just what are they going to go for next?
The scariest part about the film is that we never learn the true nature of their crimes. We see the final straw that allows the police to actively pursue the family with warrants and interrogations, but we don't know anything about what led up to it. Are drugs involved? Maybe. They always seem to have them. But, again, would peddling a little of this and a little of that be enough to turn the heat up so high on this family?
About halfway through the film, when the Uncles--Smurf's sons--truly become paranoid, everything jumps off the rails in the best way possible. Those quiet moments, where you don't know what's going on, are gone. There are secrets still, but they aren't nearly as well-hidden. In fact, by the final reel, the remaining characters announce the majority of their plans out loud and that's even more terrifying. That saying about "the devil you know" doesn't apply when the criminals are skilled enough to manufacture entirely different personas to hide their every move.
The performances in this film are excellent. Newcomer James Frecheville has a very ill-defined role as the stoic teen Joshua. Even when he's with his girlfriend and her family, he reveals nothing. However, there is so much effort put into this mocked-up machismo that you know he's fighting to fit in with this group.
Jackie Weaver, now Academy Award nominated for her work, is stunning. So much of the role could have come across as one note--she is the caretaker. She kisses her sons and grandson on the lips and always finds a positive spin for every tragedy that hits the family. There's something off about those early caring scenes, though; she's always lurking in the background while the bad things are about to happen and wears that smile as a mask even when her forehead or body language betrays her good intentions. It's brilliant work even without the flashy scenes she gets in the second half of the film. Let me leave it at this: she has no shortage of Oscar clips starting in the second half of the film.
Also worth noting is Ben Mendelsohn as Pope. What starts as a cursory character--he is the Uncle everyone in the family thinks the police are after--turns into the ringleader of the crime family. He makes all the calls and sets off the domino effect of paranoia that makes a bad situation far worse. It's a flashy performance that teeters in and out of believability for intentional effect. Someone needs to be the bad guy in a crime drama; you might as well try to make the "evil" one a bit more unique.
Writer/director David Michod pulled together a strong debut feature. The film is cleanly shot with handheld cameras. The lighting is always appropriate and the sound design just fine. The screenplay is the true star of the film. As unpredictable as it becomes in the final hour, it is never unbelievable. I did not once doubt that these criminals would behave in these ways. Even when characters stepped away from expectations, the transitions are handled so well that they feel real. Michod's goal was to create a great Melbourne crime drama in the tradition of great Australian crime dramas; he easily succeeded.
If you go in with the right expectations, Animal Kingdom will be a great viewing experience. It is challenging in the best ways it can be. The few places it falters happen because the film is supposed to be realistic. These human errors add to the experience of the film.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.