Staff Recommendation: Animal Kingdom

Cornerhouse Usher and Front of House Manager Matt Aistrup reviews Animal Kingdom

The term ‘survival of the fittest’ has never felt more apt than in writer/director David Michôd’s tense crime drama set in Melbourne’s murky suburban underworld. Losely based on events and characters from Melbourne’s recent history, Animal Kingdom follows seventeen-year-old Josh ‘J’ Cody (James Frecheville) as he becomes unwittingly involved in his estranged family’s criminal activities, and the subsequent aftermath, following the death of his mother.

Not strictly a ‘gangster’ film in the traditional sense, Animal Kingdom does share many of the genre’s themes: family, loyalty and betrayal to name a few. However, its suburban setting gives it a strange quality. This is a world that is familiar to most, and extraordinary circumstances often play out in ordinary settings (a meeting with a corrupt cop in a pet shop surrounded by fish being one example), lending the film a slightly unsettling and surreal element to it. In this respect Animal Kingdom could be compared to HBO’s cult television series The Sopranos, both highlighting the contemporary gangster’s relationship to his aspirational suburban surroundings and how he struggles to survive within it. The difference being that whereas The Sopranos focused on how the leader of the pack maintains power and control, Animal Kingdom’s protagonist Josh (whose blank expressions perfectly convey a youthful moral ambiguity) is at the bottom of the food chain in a world that is utterly chaotic and unpredictable.

“They were all scared, even if they didn’t show it” Josh tells us, by way of introduction to his family. Josh guides us through an environment where almost everyone’s behaviour is ruled by fear, non more so than his Uncle Andrew ‘Pope’ (Ben Mendelsohn) whose paranoid and unhinged mental state leads him to behave in a manner that is terrifying to both the people around him and the audience watching from a safe distance; particularly in the domestic scenes, which lend a claustrophobic feel to the film as the tension builds within the family unit.

Jackie Weaver as Grandma ‘Smurf’ Janine also gives a towering performance as the family’s ever-present matriarch from hell, asserting her influence and machinations in an attempt to make everyone bend to her will.

This is not, however, a star vehicle (Guy Pearce features, taking a back seat in the relatively smaller role of Detective Nathan Leckie) and Michôd draws a variety of great performances from his ensemble cast who accompany their director in creating a world devoid of trust and morality. Michôd’s direction is methodical in its pacing; the creeping menace occasionally punctuated by violence that is shocking without ever being gratuitous.

This is as assured a directorial debut as we’re likely to see all year. Animal Kingdom is brutish, scary and wholly convincing.

Cornerhouse Box Office Assistant Marie Cookson reviews Animal Kingdom

“Know your place.”

By the end of David Michod’s tense, troubling, thriller about a criminal brotherhood and their watchful, all-seeing mother, the question of where nephew and grandson Josh Cody will now stand in the human kingdom of law and order versus crime and brutality has been efficiently, viciously, answered.

The film is set in Melbourne, Australia and follows Josh, alone after the death of his own mother, as he is taken in under the be-jeweled and manicured paw of Janine Cody. Janine is the grand matriarchal lioness that guards her pride of felonious sons as they play a terrifyingly bloody game of payback with the police.

Jacki Weaver, playing Janine, is mesmerizing. Her voice has a sweet, tender cadence as she lovingly calls members of her brood “Hun,” her eyes are as wide and open as a baby’s, and her dyed flaxen hair like the mane of a beautiful beast. And yet we are left in no doubt that this is a woman who will fight – polished nail and varnished claw – to the death, in order to protect her own animal empire.

All of the performances in Michod’s feature are equally as solid and refined. James Frecheville, playing Josh, conveys the stillness and cautiousness of a young man trying to make sense of the ferocious and chaotic world that he has been born into.

Guy Pearce as Detective Leckie gives a nuanced and subtle performance as the one man attempting to steer Josh on the path to redemption. Leckie encourages Josh to know his place in the kingdom, to come clean and to shop his uncles to the police. You can be one of us, he intimates; not one of them.

In the end, however, only Josh himself can decide his own place, his own fate. And what can a grandmother lioness do but observe and survey the whole sorry, bloody mess?