Friday 25 February 2011


Out now in cinemas is this new Australian crime thriller. Watch the trailer and read my review, next...

Set in the Melbourne underworld, Animal Kingdom tells the story of the Cody family; a group of petty thugs, dope dealers and thieves, looked after by their ever forgiving Mum (Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver). New into the fold is J (James Frecheville), forced to join his extended family following the death of his mother. When J's Uncle Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) returns to the roost, he quickly pulls him into his criminal world, and when one of the key figures in the family gets assassinated, J finds himself caught in the middle of a violent turf war with the cops.

From debut writer/director David Michod, this is an impressive piece of Australian cinema with some noteworthy performances. As memorable as Romper Stomper and at times Scorsese-esque with its unexpected violence, it's full of tension and a constantly shifting balance of power that makes for a compelling watch. There's constant displays of machismo within the Cody family, none more so than the manipulative and dangerous Pope.

Pope is one of the most grotesque and uncomfortably watchable characters in recent cinema history. Ben Mendelsohn not only deserves an Oscar nomination alongside his on-screen mother Jacki Weaver, he quite possibly deserves the win. Instead of arguing over Christian Bale and Geoffrey Rush, we really should be deciding between Andrew Garfield and Ben Mendelsohn. Admittedly he is a somewhat unknown actor, but that only makes his on screen persona more powerful. Mendelsohn completely owns every scene he's in, and it's as revelatory a performance as Christoph Waltz's was in Inglourious Basterds. For such a scrawny, wiry guy, he commands a tremendous amount of screen presence.

Excluding Pope, the Cody's are a seemingly normal family on the outside, albeit filled with criminals. They work well as a unit and can always rely on their grand matriarch to get them out of trouble should the need arise. When J joins the family 'business' his life suddenly becomes a battle to survive, and he's given little option but to obey every order with quiet understanding. James Frecheville's performance as the fresh faced and shy teenager may be understated, but it's wholly believable in this family of alpha males.

As the doting mother willing to do anything to protect her herd, Jacki Weaver has earnt some justified praise for her performance as Janine. At first it may be hard to see why she's been singled out for praise among the performers, but as the story builds towards its climax she earns all the plaudits possible with her disturbing moral compass. Janine may be a small lady in a family of big personalities (affectionately referred to as Smurf), but the balance of power is re-established every time she gives one of her children a loving kiss on the lips.

On the other side of this battle of good vs evil is Guy Pearce's Inspector Leckie. He's the one person that can save J before he gets pulled in too far, and is trying his best to do so. He's aware of how manipulative the Cody's can be, and doesn't want to see another person's life ruined by them. It's a solid, dependable showing from Pearce in a film awash with gruff, overly masculine performances.

As an allegory for the Animal Kingdom, this unseen side of Melbourne truly is a hostile place to live. J may be nothing more than a Lion cub, but if he's going to survive in this family, he's going to have to learn to show his teeth. As Leckie tries to explain to J, survival of the fittest will only go so far, and he's got to be smart if he wants out of this family and this world. If he shows any weakness Pope will pounce on him and tear him to shreds.

The Cody's rank alongside the Corleone's as one of the great on screen crime families, although rather than basking in wealth and the opulence of success, survive in the gutters of Australia's underworld. Animal Kingdom captures the grit and grime of the street level thuggery, and features some scenes of shocking and unexpected violence that will leave you aghast at their disregard for human life. The turf war that rages between the Cody's and the cops heads down some shocking avenues, and the balance of what's right and what's wrong continually shifts.

Animal Kingdom is a smart, tension-filled and compelling crime drama with some outstanding performances. This is a must see.


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