Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Animal Kingdom (2010)

Animal Kingdom is something of a rarity today: it's a thriller that genuinely surprises you, actually raising the stakes from beginning to end with a payoff that isn't too tidy or too mess, just painfully honest. This Australian indie from writer/director David Michod centers on Joshua "J" Cody (James Frecheville), who had been protected from his mom's criminal Melbourne relatives until she suffers a massive overdose. J is adopted by Smurf (Jacki Weaver), the family matriarch who takes care of her three sons Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), and Darren (Luke Ford). Pope and his friend Barry (John Edgarton) were bank robbers, with Darren tagging along, and Craig is a drug dealer. The police have their sights on Pope, and intend to bring him in, and despite his standoffish nature, J too is soon pulled into a situation that is much bigger than any of them expected.
The action is masterfully paced in this film. Michod's style feels like a grittier, less-polished Sidney Lumet, who obviously is an influence here. The twists and turns always feel organic, namely because the characters are so well-developed and interesting. You get emotionally involved with all of them, regardless of their innocence, and that makes everything that happens all the more exciting and jaw-dropping. Honestly, I can't think of a thriller that's made me gasp this much since Lumet's own Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.
This is also thanks to the superb acting ensemble here. Everyone here brings their A-game, with three in particular that are astounding. First, Weaver absolutely blows it out of the water with her fresh, taut performance as the clan's hard-knuckle mother. She's caring (almost excessively so), but when things get tough, she's a pure diamond; just check out her brilliant scene toward the end, when she confronts Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce) about dropping everything against her sons ("You've done some bad things, haven't you, sweetie?"). Secondly, Mendelsohn is intense as Pope, a man who's worries are starting to devolve into paranoia, but for good reason. And then there's newcomer Frecheville, who says a lot with very few words. His evolution from beginning to end is probably the film's greatest achievement.
Stapleton and Weaver
Animal Kingdom is a fitting title for this excellent film: as the family comes under attack, their animal instincts kick in; family matters in theory, but in the reality they have to accept, it's survival of the fittest. If you can't keep up with the pack, you're in big trouble.

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