Cinema that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and gives you a good shake, pulling you into a mother’s den of a suburban underworld.
From the opening scene, the original Animal Kingdom film (now adapted as a TV series) is unrelenting, drawing us into to a world where young crim brothers fight each other and a bunch of ratbag cops to survive.
David Michôd (formerly mild-mannered editor at IF Magazine) is a VCA graduate with connections to the Edgerton brothers, having co-written a number of shorts with Joel and Nash before directing his breakthrough Crossbow (2007), which won the Melbourne International Film Festival award for Best Short Film with screenings at Venice, Sundance and Clermont-Ferrant.
The development process for Animal Kingdom was a slow boil, taking nearly 10 years to craft the screenplay (based loosely on Melbourne crime stories) and every frame settles into your psyche, with a muted violence and sense of unease; a brilliant psychological drama.
Michôd couldn’t have hoped for a better ensemble to bring his take on corruption and crime in Melbourne’s suburbs in the 80s to life. All performances are note-perfect. With its positioning of men always on the brink, coiled and ready to spring, set around a quietly manipulative mother, the film recalls Rowan Woods’ The Boys.
It also acts as an antidote to the hyped up razzamatazz of Underbelly, a show that dumbed down as it left Melbourne, becoming less interested in character as it wore on to its second and third series. Animal Kingdom works on another level entirely.
Michôd is not so much interested in the stylistic shoot-em-up and tits’n’arse life of the petty crim as in the internal spaces negotiated in a family where criminality has become entrenched, the degree of loyalty within when things become compromised, the lull when every character has begun a moral slide.
Rather than a seedy-glam look at the crimes, we’re thrust into a world in transition where the men themselves sense a shift: Barry (Joel Edgerton), settled with wife and child, wants to escape the game altogether while Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is too caught up in the paranoia of his speed-haze to be able to read situations readily.
And no-one does menace like Ben Mendelsohn. As ‘Pope’, he’s mesmerising, and every time his blue-grey Hawaiian shirt comes into frame (and it’s often what you see before his face), the tension both on screen and off escalates and the audience squirms.
His ability to intimidate is not about large outbursts of violence but quiet moments of stalking. Using cat-and-mouse tactics, he tries to goad the truth out of others (accusing Luke Ford’s Darren of being gay because of the type of drink he pours), in a tone that belies his desperation to be the head of the family, the one to turn to as confidante: “Any time you want to talk to someone,” he intones smoothly, as they move past him and head out the door.
Newcomer James Frecheville as 17-year-old Cody, thrown into the family after his mother OD’s, is large and immobile, his face registering not much — an asset, he soon discovers. He looks older than his years but his sensitivity is revealed in the way he treats his girlfriend Nicky (another impressive debut performance from Laura Wheelwright) and longs to be a part of her family.
Reigning over these tall and physically imposing men is the diminutive ‘Smurf’ (Jacki Weaver), her cute nickname covering for a woman who will do anything to protect her brood. There’s a faint whiff of fear in the air as she manipulates her men with cuddles and long, lingering kisses on the mouth, positioning her body in a way that suggests she still sees them as small boys (and their behaviour can be reduced at times to that too).
As ‘J’ says in voiceover, his uncles are men who — at the heart of it — are afraid, but too scared to show it. In a nice twist, only the cop, Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce), does not live in a world ruled by fear (although his colleagues, on the take, clearly do).
Animal Kingdom is a brilliant and exciting feature debut for David Michôd. The film’s title cleverly reminds you that, stripped of their clothes, their bravado, their posturing, these men are like lost creatures, products of their environment; it’s do or die.
The complexities of character, the evocation of an era, the subtle acting, the deliberate camera, the sense of a community dying out — these all signal a director of great natural skill with an intimate knowledge of filmmaking (and the ability to relay this to his cast and crew) making Animal Kingdom one of the most dynamic films of recent years, and one for repeated viewing.
This article first appeared in RealTime.