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Animal Kingdom

Film Four Stars
Animal Kingdom is one of those festival films that I chose without really knowing what I was getting into, the key to selecting it was the blurb on the festival write-up, something I rarely rely on but in this case it caught my eye. It was mainly down to the description of gritty Australian crime drama and the comments about the reality of it. When I did look elsewhere I saw more positive comments about the film, a story that's built more about the characters and the relationships rather than action.

That's something that holds true now that I've seen the film, and it delivered so much more. It's a strong, dramatic thriller that carries some rich writing and careful directing, building characters and story to good effect and keeping clear of the classic and all too often seen gangster crime story.

Plot.pngAnimalKingdom.jpgAnimal Kingdom is a film from writer and director David Michôd which follows Joshua "J" Cody as life is suddenly thrust upon him. His mother has taken him away from the rest of their family, a family of criminals, in order to protect him and give him the chance of finding a better life. However she struggles to offer him everything he needs, and she can't shake her drug habit, a habit which kills her in the opening scenes in a shocking moment delivering a strong message to the audience.

He does the only think he can think of, after lying about his age to the police and after the ambulance removes her from the house, he calls his grandmother, Janine "Smurf" Cody, who comes to collect him and takes him home, back to the family his mother was protecting him from.

We quickly see that the family are on a downward spiral, their criminal activities under investigation from the Australian police, and Melbourne's armed robbery squad is on their tail, a squad renowned for their brutality and direct and violent action. They're being shadowed closely and paranoia is rife.

J arrives into this life about the same time as the arrival of the rather psychotic brother Andrew "Pope" Cody who the police are really after and who looks set to cause the family nothing but trouble. While Darren, Craig and Barry all want to lay low and end their criminal past, Pope isn't going to let that happen.

TheFilm.pngThe film focuses on the individuals in the family rather than a bigger crime story, and in fact there's no real crime to investigate as we and J are joining the family once they are on the decline and have stopped their armed robbery spree. It's more about J than anything else, and how his family and their lives change his.

This is where the film works so well, it isn't some big crime film, it's bathed in the aftermath and effects of the crimes, and the problems of the individuals and the family that pour out from there. Even the presentation of police is small and very personal, with us only getting close to one senior detective who is trying to bring down the family the right way and looks to J for assistance.

There's an interesting scene later on with this policeman where we see him shopping with his family and bumping into the matriarch of the family he's trying to arrest. He quietly tells her to move on, and for a scene that pits the cop against the criminal it's a very close and real life moment, and for me that describes the film down to a tee.

Animal Kingdom does take us right into the home of these people and the heart of their relationships, the camera, and therefore the audience, are taken to their heart through J and follow them without the need for any big scenes or overly played moments, and that's shown brilliantly a number of times when guns are involved or during a car chase.

J is at another house, escaping slowly in the family car as the father drives him away, oblivious to the fact he's trying to escape before someone appears to grab him. The scene stretches on, and instead of a fast paced getaway with a car screeching into view, it's all very sedate and well paced, and very real.

Another example of this style is the police raid on the house in the latter half of the film. Again we see a smaller group of police inside and out, the ones defending the house seeing the situation they are in and deciding to give up immediately without an heroic gunfight. The raid is over quickly without Hollywood hubbub, and does feel like it's closer to reality than much of what we see.

You can see from a few of these moments that I've picked out that the film does take a different tact to the crime thriller you might be expecting. Not only does it focus on the people, but more often than not it focuses on J, at the heart of the story.

That became a little bit of a problem for me as I felt that the character of J became rather irritating later on in the film, and he was the main thread that strung it all together. His inability to do anything or make any decision himself began to grate. He stood around with his mouth open and just looked and mumbled.

Later on there is a turning point for the character, and it surprised me that it wasn't the one you might think it would be, and instead of seemingly working things out for himself he just takes a huge turn in his character and just stands up and eloquently outlines this plan he has. Where did that come from?

Aside from J the other leading characters are rather interesting, and there are two in particular who steal the show. The mother character seems to be in the background for most of the film, but a change in direction brings her to the fore and reveals her strength, it's here where the character and the actress pick up and capture your attention.

Her pivotal scene in the film is a powerful moment that is written, directed and performed really well. It turns events around and does take you a little by surprise. She runs with this somewhat new character right through to the end and does show someone who is formidable, powerful and all together not someone to be messed with.

Then there's Ben Mendelsohn who plays the brother who has been hiding out from the police. As soon as he arrives on screen you know there is something wrong with him and it grows throughout the film. What I loved about him was that he wasn't overplayed or portrayed as the atypical psychopath. You can see and feel the moments when he's sitting contemplating what to do, and far from being the random psychotic that you'd see he's actually rather considered and methodical, even when he is doing the craziest of things.

One of the best scenes is where he carries the sleeping girl, the scene with the drugs initiation, or the murder itself. These are all written and performed with a powerful sense of reality and matter of fact from the writing all the way through to the character performance and actions, and Mendelsohn delivers a straightforward matter of fact performance to the killing that is utterly chilling.

At times throughout the film his nervousness and fidgeting create a frightening atmosphere that is palatable and ramps up the tension for scenes to come, concerned as to what could happen next and waiting for the worst.

Guy Pearce was undeniably underused, but he again plays his character like the others with an un-shined natural matter of fact portrayal without any of the contrived moments or overly dramatic scenes to unduly capture your attention. I just wish there had been more of him, as always, for he's a superb actor.

Despite a few glitches in the storyline for the main character of J which seem at odds with where his character was at the beginning of the story, and a rather confusing moment in the police vehicle with the guard which needed a little more story telling around it to explain it fully, the ending does deliver well and wraps up the story in a powerful and satisfying way.

It's played as real and as matter of fact as the rest of the film, and from the moment of the murder you're shocked and very unnerved at what has happened. Not only is the murder shocking, but the lack of the usual explosion of events around it is very disconcerting as you would hope that it wouldn't be so bleak and uneventful as it is shown. These feelings carry through to the very end and it's fair to say that this film will do everything other than leave you alone in that seat and wash over you.

Overall.pngAnimal Kingdom has some great writing and powerful performances. It's a very bleak and at times disheartening film that smacks hard of the shocking truth of how actual events might play out, and they aren't the cinematic way that we've been led to believe. Depressing at times, and downbeat, and all from the very beginning. This is a thriller looking at a crime family that's different to the ones you've seen before.

Thoroughly enjoyable and definitely entertaining, some of the scenes and the story will stay with you well after the film and you'll find yourself mulling them over and carrying some of the feelings away from the cinema.

I loved the fact that the film managed to have such an impact and made you feel so much, although there are story faults with it, there are some great high points and it does deliver something rather different than you would expect from your average crime related film.

UK IMDB Film Details
Filmstalker Glasgow Film Festival 2011 page
Buy or rent Animal Kingdom from LOVEFiLM
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This is one of the rare films that got me going back and watch the trailer (the one with All Out of Love by Air Supply towards the end) over again after watching the movie. Very powerful, I loved it.

There is something that bothers me though and since the movie has been filmed and (I think) takes place in Australia and I'm not familiar with Australian laws, I'm a bit at a loss for explanation regarding (potential spoilers ahead for other readers) the death of Baz in the parking lot.

Are cops in Australia allowed to shoot at unharmed people without so much as a warning? And in a public place too. This also bothered in the scene where a police officer shoots Craig in the back while he's running away, yet again without so much as a command to stop and drop his weapon.

I know for a fact that where I live, police officers are bound by law to verbally command a felon to cease and desist before they can shoot.

If this movie is any indication as to how Australian police treats its criminals; its the freaking far west over there!

I think that during a certain period of time the crime squad in Australia were rather brutal to try and end the serious problem of organised gun crime.

There have been a few series created about the time and exported to the UK, Underbelly has been recognised as reflecting a time when both sides were throwing caution and the law to the winds and engaging in all out war.

I believe, and I'm no expert at all on this, that after that the police themselves were thoroughly investigated and were straightened out.

It feels like a similar time period to the series Underbelly and other stories I've heard, so perhaps this is where the film is set too?

That would certainly make sense.



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