My favourite genre of film is crime, and my all-time favourite films will always be saturated in the genre, with films such as Heat, LA Confidential, Usual Suspects, Chinatown, A Prophet, Seven and Collateral remaining in my Top 20 no matter when the ubiquitous list is written.
Hence, when a new critically-acclaimed crime film hits UK cinemas I can’t usually wait very long to see it - even if it means the mission from Teddington to the Soho Curzon to see it. It is even more attractive when it is a foreign crime film hitting our shores, and even if the language is the same (like those from Down Under), the style is very different to what I have come to predict from British and American producers. Animal Kingdom, Australia’s latest hot export, had me literally salivating to see it - and given the fact that Guy Pearce was in it alongside the awesome Ben Mendelsohn and Joel Edgerton it was firmly planted as a “must-see” flick.
To give a brief account of the plot: Amidst the sun-drenched streets of Melbourne, young Joshua ‘J’ Cody moves in with his matriarchal grandma and criminal uncles after his mum overdoses and leaves him with no-one to turn to. Whilst living with this notorious crime family, his uncles and their crew are slowly being targeted by an efficient and forceful band of detectives, forcing the eldest and more calculated son Pope to be in hiding. As J starts to be drawn deeper into this criminal fraternity he becomes more complicit in their actions and learns a lesson or two about the pecking order within the “animal kingdom”.
The performances can’t be faulted, at every turn there is a stellar piece of acting, and the shirt-sleeves and pounding sun do well to juxtapose the violence of the crimes committed. This portrayal of Melbourne contrasts totally with the grimy streets of London in such British crimes as Harry Brown; in Animal Kingdom we see the film’s menace, ‘Pope’, donning a Hawaiian shirt - a million miles from the black pea coats and trench coats sported by the European criminal fraternity.
Most of the action centres around the family home where Jacky Weaver’s ‘Smurf’ presides over the boys with an almost incestuous dominance - regularly asking her sons and nephew for a lingering kiss on the lips. Her sweet demeanour amidst this world of crime makes her so utterly compelling, resonating the chills generated from so many of cinema’s horrific women (think a hybrid of Annie Wilkes and Miss Havisham). Weaver remains at the top of the pecking order - although we see her eldest son Pope challenge her decisions and commands; he is climbing the ranks to be heralded as king of the jungle. Pope is the Public Enemy Number One to the special task force headed up by Pearce due to his part in the criminal undertakings of the Cody family - namely armed robbery. His passive-aggression fluctuates between suburban dad and hardened convict emanating a continuous sense of dread, like a snake waiting to bite. His relentless provocation of his weaker siblings (in one particularly intense scene he goads his youngest brother with attacks on his sexuality) makes his character evermore unattractive; a truly despicable human being, and it is easy to wonder if the family would’ve got in so deep if it weren’t for his menacing presence.
Newcomer James Frecheville is excellent as the young J, although his mannerisms and appearance depict an older man (than seventeen), and after the police try recruiting him as a material witness, his constant battle within his own conscience is very well conveyed; always walking the knife edge between allegiance to family or the police. However, the corruption depicted within the police force causes the line to blur so often that as a viewer it’s hard to choose which side you’re on - a dilemma J faces.
Animal Kingdom’s realistic take on genre show Michôd to be a true auteur of crime direction - someone I will certainly be keeping an eye out for. Although not shot in a documentary manner, when the film is finished it feels as though you have bore witness to a factual event, and could even be forgiven for doing so, as the central plot piece (the cold-blooded murder of two police officers) is based on the true events of the Walsh Street police shootings in 1988. Seeing the slimy underbelly of the city and the overspill of crime within the microcosm of the Cody family most definitely juxtaposes the Melbourne we have all come to know from daytime TV…..Neighbours this ain’t.