Animal Kingdom (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

 Apart from Weaver and Pearce there’s very little acting going on in this film, a fact that makes it curiously flat despite all the violence taking place.

 

 Animal Kingdom, the first feature film by Australian director David Michod, is about the banality of evil. The central figures of the film are members of a Melbourne crime family who are striking in their absolute ordinariness. The polar opposite of gangster films that glamorize the lifestyle, Animal Kingdom presents its main characters as boring and dysfunctional. The family doesn’t even dress well or eat in nice restaurants.

So why do they bother with crime and its attendant hazards when they could probably do better with honest work? This is not a film that goes too deeply into character background or motivation, but it appears that crime is all they’ve ever known, and they stick with it to please their mother.
The mother in question is Janine Cody, played by Jacki Weaver. Weaver absolutely steals the show as a sort of Ma Barker who raised her sons to be criminals and never allows them to let go of her apron strings. Her sons, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford) are as stiff as wooden Indians. Each has a characteristic by which he can be labeled — Pope is the psycho everyone fears, Darren is the tattooed drug addict, Darren is the young innocent—and that’s about as deep as it gets.
Added to this mix is young Joshua, nicknamed “J.” In this role, actor James Frecheville takes the art of portraying blankness to new heights. J is Janine’s grandson, and due to the recent death of his mother he has moved into her household alongside his uncles. The film’s title is a reference to J’s predicament: he must learn to find his place in this human jungle. It’s a compelling idea, but the film was not executed nearly as well as it might have been. J has a nice girlfriend (Laura Wheelwright) from a normal family, but the film treats her, as it does all women other than Janine, as utterly disposable. Other major characters include a sympathetic police detective (Guy Pearce), the family lawyer (Dan Wylie) and a close associate (Joel Edgerton) who tries to tell the brothers that their game is up and persuade them to consider another line of work.
I’m surprised that Animal Kingdom won Best World Dramatic Feature at Sundance. Although it’s an enjoyable genre piece (and an excellent effort for a first feature), I wouldn’t put it in the top 20 films I’ve seen so far this year. I really can’t see it as a breakout film on the order of Winter’s Bone or Restrepo.
My biggest problem with the film is its reliance on cinematic tricks at the expense of storytelling and characterization. It’s possible that Michod doesn’t know how to work with actors or that he simply doesn’t care. Apart from Weaver and Pearce there’s very little acting going on in this film, a fact that makes it curiously flat despite all the violence taking place. Instead, Animal Kingdom relies to a great degree on cinematic effects and an overbearing, ever-present musical score by Antony Partos to cue emotions that would have been better expressed by the actors. In fact, this film could be used to teach cinematic technique, because every device you can think of is in there, usually more than once. There’s even one that I don’t recall seeing before: the match on dolly where the camera moves forward at a steady pace across a cut between locations. On the downside, Animal Kingdom could also be used as a cautionary tale for young filmmakers. Over-use any device (rack focus, slow motion, and reveal pan are among the chief offenders here) and it quickly loses its effectiveness.
Cinematography by Adam Arkapaw and editing by Luke Dolan are both first rate, and one extra benefit of Animal Kingdom is the overview of Melbourne, both high and low: you see the art museum but you also see the quiet suburbs and the backside of the docks. | Sarah Boslaugh

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