Feb 26, 2011

Animal Kingdom [15]

Dir: David Michod
Animal Kingdom arrives in the UK having spent most of 2010 on the festival and international release circuit, building up a reputation as one of the best films to come out of Australia in some time. I wish I had been able to see and evaluate the film without that long lead (and, perhaps especially, without hearing it described as the best film of 2010) because then, although I doubt it would have been outstanding, Animal Kingdom might have been less disappointing.

Let's be clear, this is by no means a bad film. David Michod's screenplay and direction are solid (though both have the odd leaden moment), and promise much for the future. He establishes a gritty, down to earth, but also well designed, look for the film, and he draws some excellent performances from a cast consisting of a mix of Australian stars (Ben Mendelsohn, Guy Pearce), up and comers (James Frecheville, Luke Ford and Laura Wheelwright) and an actress making a striking comeback (Jacki Weaver).

The problem with Animal Kingdom is more in concept than execution, as well as it is told, the story of 17 year old J (Frecheville), who goes to live with his criminal extended family when his mother dies of a drug overdose, and finds himself torn between loyalty to his family, fear, and the Police offer of witness protection, really can't help but feel a bit hackneyed. It's a story that has been gone over and over in cinema, and Michod's take on it offers few surprises or fresh ideas.

The film does come up trumps as far as the acting is concerned. Ben Mendelsohn impressed me last year in Beautiful Kate, and if anything he's even better here as menacing patriarch Pope. There is real layering to Mendelsohn's work; Pope might easily have been a caricature of villainy, but he underplays the role, making the character's barely repressed malevolence genuinely chilling, never more so than in the scenes with J's girlfriend (Wheelwright), who he always holds in what seems to be a dangerous gaze.

Much of the attention on the film has focused on Jacki Weaver's performance as J's grandmother Smurf. Weaver has been a fixture in Australian cinema since the mid 70's (like many of her generation of actresses she first made a splash in Picnic at Hanging Rock). For a while I was really wondering what all the fuss, to say nothing of the Oscar nomination, was about. Yes Weaver gave the relationship between Smurf and her brood of boys a creepy, incestuous undertone, but there wasn't really much to the character or the performance. Then comes the film's third act, and Smurf takes on a much bigger role, allowing Weaver many juicy scenes to play, all of which she knocks out of the park. Slowly, inexorably, she becomes the most corrupt, and the most frightening, person in the film. Weaver's intense performance becomes a mini masterpiece in those scenes.

The rest of the cast is also strong; Frecheville makes a creditable debut as J, as does Laura Wheelwright, overcoming a very underwritten role with a strong performance as J's girlfriend Nicky. Guy Pearce is his familiar solid self as the cop trying to get J to turn and Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton and Mendelsohn combine to create a realistic criminal fraternity.

I'd like to recommend Animal Kingdom more whole heartedly, but for me the film never quite caught light. The script is the main offender; familiar and predictable, despite having some well conceived scenes and excellent dialogue. Some of the characters also feel under developed, a particular problem towards the end of the film, when the lack of connection with Nicky, and the limited import J's relationship with her is accorded in the first two acts, making the ending ring a little hollow. I would certainly still say that this is a film worth seeing for the performances, and because I suspect that David Michod does have a great film in him somewhere down the line, this isn't that film, but it's a solid start on the road to it.

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