Animal Kingdom (2010)

Animal Kingdom

Streuth, it’s a jungle out there! David Michôd’s gangster flick Animal Kingdom pits might against right when a young innocent stumbles into the Australian badlands.

Animal Kingdom

Pride And Joy by Mark Wilshin

CAUTION: Here be spoilers.

With its Melbourne-based mobster family, David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom,with its Australian twist on The Sopranos, is a belter worthy of the great Dame Nellie Melba – a pride of lions, masters of their urban savannah, waging a bitter fight to the death on the police.  Entering into this savage law of the jungle is doe-eyed gazelle J, more dolt than colt, who seems more entranced by Deal Or No Deal than his mum dying of a heroin overdose. His junkie mother had done her best to keep him away from the criminal branch of the family, but the white sheep dives right in with a hilariously deadpan call to grandma. And as she initiates him into the mob, it’s clear this wet-behind-the-ears cub is entering the lions’ den.

J may not be the sharpest stick on the steppe, but with his highschool sweetheart Nicky, he’s gentle and emotionally stable. Which is more than can be said for his uncles Baz, Pope, Craig and Darren. Pope is in hiding from the Armed Robbery Squad, who are pitched outside the family home every night on surveillance missions, while Baz tries to keep the heist business up and running, Craig runs his own little sideline in narcotics and Darren never quite seems to notice what’s going on. They’re close to mummy, very close – Janine kisses her sons on the lips and goes along with their nefarious schemes, happy just to be around her boys. And reunited at last with J, the now reunited family are unified in glorious slow-mo leaving a restaurant after dinner – like a pack of Reservoir Dogs.

The family isn’t united for long though, as Baz gets his head blown off by some off-duty police officers venting their frustration at his brother Pope’s disappearance. And J becomes quickly embroiled in both the family’s bloodlust and business – unable to refuse Craig’s offer of a gun to scare the pants off two turnpike rowdies, or Pope when he asks him to steal a car for a job. And when his three uncles exact revenge on two police officers one night for Baz’s murder, the family bonds tighten. Ben Mendelsohn is efficiently chilling as default clan leader Pope, a loose cannon slipping off his pills and into creeping paranoia, his wheedling attempts to get Darren to talk about himself, or even come out, especially repulsive. In terms of spectator empathy, he crosses irredeemably over to the dark side when he jabs Nicky with a heroin overdose, a pivotal climax which forces J to decide where his allegiances lie. Crime or punishment?

Escaping Pope’s murderous glare into the witness protection programme, J’s written off as dead by the lupine beast in grandma’s clothes. But with the police cutting backroom drug deals and murdering its most wanted enemies, the forces of law and order aren’t much of a refuge for relatives of disaffected criminals. And when the short arm of the law comes to his hideaway to cover their tracks for good, J has to run for his life. Even moral touchstone Leckie isn’t around enough to prevent him running back into the open arms of family. Caught in a no man’s land between lawless thieves and the strong protective arm of the law, J’s decision as to where he fits in provides the film with its moral backbone. And for him at least it seems you can play the joker in a no trumps hand. He may get Pope and Darren acquitted on a weak testimony cooked up with the defence counsel, but he serves his own vengeance on Pope with a carelessly abandoned police pistol.

With subtle performances by Guy Pearce and Ben Mendelsohn, Animal Kingdom won the Grand Jury prize at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. Jacki Weaver has even been nominated for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her role as the grandma with sabre teeth. And indeed it is a slick piece of film-making, even if dead-eyed Josh is perhaps too blank to curry much interest. At times it’s interestingly and dirtily low-budget, the makeshift homes all breeze blocks and wooden studs, while at others there’s a Hollywood sheen – an all-too-easy recourse to Tarantinoesque slow-mos when the brothers are killed or arrested. No wonder it’s one of Quentin’s favourite films of 2010. Even the central narrative of moral confusion and dirty double-crossing is underplayed and overcrowded with tinsel music, leaving the film feeling slightly off-kilter. But as a gangster movie exploring the savage morality of survival of the fittest, Animal Kingdom puts family squabbles in a whole new light.

Animal Kingdom is released in the UK on 25th February 2011

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