Tuesday, September 14, 2010
As Animal Kingdom opens, the camera glides slowly over an objet d’art featuring a pride of lions. Clearly, no apologies will be made for being on-the-nose in this crime drama debut from Australian writer-director David Michôd. No apologies necessary. Like a powerful stage play, the compelling feat Animal Kingdom achieves is to poetically mine a single rich vein: how a family implodes when the law of the jungle is constricted by the long arm of the law.
Winner of Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema – Dramatic, Animal Kingdom works comfortably within familiar genre territory, but brings something incredibly fresh to the scene of the crime. While the performances are pitch-perfect across the board -- a notable achievement for any first-time director -- what ultimately sets Animal Kingdom apart is its triumph of tone. What Michôd pulls off is an almost tactile mood that hovers ever-present, like emotional humidity. He creates this effect with mundane yet maze-like sets, bouts of claustrophobic camerawork and menacing music and sound design that drip, drip, drip like stubborn faucets of dread.
We quickly meet our protagonist -- the recently orphaned 17-year-old "J" (James Frecheville), who reaches out to his estranged grandmother “Smurf” (Jackie Weaver in a creepily feral performance) when he’s got nowhere else to turn. Through J’s succinct but revealing narration at the outset of the film, it’s quickly established that his relatives are violent criminals now quaking in their boots because the cops are circling closer.
J moves into the family’s main lair, the cramped, wood-paneled home of his high-strung drug dealer uncle, Darren (Luke Ford). Wandering in and out are Darren’s crime-bitten brothers: the comparatively reasonable Barry (Joel Edgerton in an impressively nuanced turn) and the comparatively fragile Craig (Sullivan Stapleton). A third uncle, “Pope,” (the quietly threatening Ben Mendelsohn) has yet to show up, but seems to inject fear at the mere mention of his name.
It’s not long before J is forced to pick up the family torch and participate in unseemly activities. When things come to a head with the police, the heat gets focused on J as one determined detective (an appealingly stoic Guy Pearce) approaches the kid with what amounts to a life-or-death proposition.
While J’s own slack-jawed stoicism may at first seem an odd choice by Michôd, it pays off in spades by the film’s climax. The character’s almost numb mode of existence and molasses-slow delayed reactions underline the languid fog of foreboding, as do Michôd's evocative use of slo-mo and lingering soundscapes. As J absorbs the terrifying shitstorm he’s walked into, so do we—to edge-of-the-seat effect.
The film has its missteps, most notably an underwritten, didactic monologue from the detective about survival of the fittest, yet Animal Kingdom is a breathtakingly assured first feature for Michôd, who spent almost a decade getting it to the screen.
"I've seen it all before," is the most common lament from those who dislike the film, along with howls over its "indulgent" use of slo-mo. Sure, Animal Kingdom doesn’t recode the crime drama, but it raises the bar substantially by juggling everything in its storytelling toolbox with bracingly calculated confidence -- an emboldening reminder that nothing is as thrilling as a story well-told.