Modern Greats #1: Animal Kingdom – Review

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In this new feature, I aim to examine films from the past five years (2007-present) and identify some of the lesser-known Modern Greats. There is much to be said about Inception, There Will Be Blood or The Artist in terms of status and legacy, but these are blockbusters, audience-pleasers and award-winners. What I prescribe in the following five weeks are five films which aren’t guaranteed to last too long in the public consciousness, but films that undoubtedly should. We start with Animal Kingdom which surfaced in 2011 in the UK, although it was originally released in 2010 in its native Australia.

It’s one of many films that showcases the wealth of talent in Australia right now. Chopper, featuring a limelight-propelling performance from Eric Bana, could be said to have started this trend back in 2000. Director Andrew Dominik (actually from New Zealand, but shhh…) went on to make The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a remarkable piece, before moving onto Killing Them Softly last year. During this time, John Hillcoat made The Proposition, and he too released a big crime film in 2012 in the form of Lawless (with The Road coming between). In the recent past, we’ve also had the animated gem Mary and Max and the broody psychoticism of Snowtown, alongside this week’s Animal Kingdom.

Not only does it boast two of Australia’s most well-known exports, the wonderful Guy Pearce, who has wowed us for years from Memento to L.A. Confidential, and the fresher talent of Joel Edgerton (Warrior), but it also paved the way for the birth of two cinematic stars before our eyes. If you’ve seen Silver Linings Playbook or Stoker over the past year and are wondering who the middle-aged blonde actress is, then worry no more. Similarly, if you’re trying to work out where the guy constantly playing sleazy, grimy characters in films like Killing Them Softly, The Place Beyond the Pines and The Dark Knight Rises came from, then look no further. It was Animal Kingdom that gave us not one but two brilliant breakthroughs with terrific performances from both Jacki Weaver and Ben Mendelsohn.

The film itself sees 17-year-old Josh ‘J’ Cody take up residence with his extended-family of organised criminals after his mother’s overdose in the opening scenes. He is quickly exposed to their ruthless and reckless ways as they battle with the officers on the other side of the law, although the lines between criminal and everyday behaviour are blurred given the actions of both groups. The police are willing to break the rules in order to win out, whilst the family are ready to do anything to survive, hence the title. The connection to mother nature serves as a strong symbolic link and a motif during the entirety of the movie. The developing question is, since the herd is only as strong as its weakest member, can Josh truly be accepted? Sgt. Leckie (Guy Pearce)’s role is to persuade him that, rather than he being a cub in a bunch of lions, these people have instead put him at the bottom of the food chain. But is it a futile quest?

But despite these extremities, to say that the family are fearless or unsure of the consequences would be incorrect. They are running scared, and the individual affectionately known to the others as Pope (played by Mendelsohn) starts off in hiding. But, like wild animals, the trick is to tell whether these criminals are merely camouflaging into the background, exhibiting defence mechanisms because of their reputation as predators, or simply set on a gung-ho attack. Are the behaviours they display really for the good of their familial group, or are some of these beasts out for themselves?

The above-mentioned Pope is perhaps the most enigmatic of the lot, and appears to be the biggest fish for the cops. But Jacki Weaver’s Janine – also known as Smurf – is equally mysterious, and just as terrifying a figure within the Cody dynasty. And despite these seemingly dominant characters, one of the film’s major strengths is its inversion of expectations within the crime genre. Thus, the savage family full of dominant figures are shown – on-screen, not just implicitly – to be as nervous and vulnerable as any regular person given the situation. By showcasing the events through Josh’s eyes – as the newest member of the pack – we’re given a unique insight into the paranoia and unenviable state of mind of the criminal individual and/or group.

This isn’t as glamorous as Casino or as cool as Goodfellas; instead the family feels and operates in ways you’d expect from a real-life version. The production of the film itself manages to make it slick and atmospheric whilst simultaneously portraying how dislikeable the lifestyle actually is. But to watch? It’s mesmerising. If you can take your eyes off the characters and performances for long enough, then you’ll notice the stylish direction with clear, intended parallels to the natural-world providing even more of a kick. The true comparison, therefore, are films like Drive and Snowtown: it’s a mix of the menacing, ultra-violent former and the cold, deliberate, desperation of the latter. This combination provides a unique merger which works, and results in a visceral and unyielding narrative of metaphorical bears, lions and sharks.

Its pace overall is one which seems constant and yet always unsettling and uncertain, but judged to perfection. Everything about the piece is unnerving, in an interesting and fresh piece of storytelling for the crime genre. Animal Kingdom will surely be recognised for the essential part it plays in the re-emergence of quality Australian cinema and the critically-lauded performances of Mendelsohn and Weaver, but the truth of it is that it deserves to be remembered and revered on its own terms.

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