This review contains spoilers.
Arriving on our shores all the way from Down Under is the hotly tipped crime film, Animal Kingdom. Loosely based on the real life Pettingill family and the Walsh Street police shootings of 1988, the film tells the story of youngster J (James Frecheville), who, after watching his mum die of a heroin overdose, finds himself living with his previously estranged family, who are, in fact, a notorious crime family led by grandmother Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody.
The family is further comprised of bank-robbing eldest brother, Pope, drug-dealing middle brother, Craig, and youngest Darren. Also involved with them is Pope’s friend, Baz Brown, played with a laconic, yet dangerous charm by Joel Edgerton.
The film traces J’s gradually deepening involvement with the murky doings of the family, including their war with a group of renegade police, while decent cop Leckie (a very Commissioner Gordon-looking Guy Pearce) attempts to save J from his fate.
After a tragic-comic opening where J’s attention is divided between his dying mother and an episode of Deal Or No Deal on TV, the action quickly takes us to Melbourne and a narrative from the young fellow providing handy exposition.
The first half of the film sets up the family, their relationships to each other, and the rapidly imploding world they inhabit, with the constant threat of lawless police execution hanging over them.
It is powerful and gripping, and as an audience member, you feel instantly part of this world. Having J as an in, obviously, assists with this, and it is a classic filmmaking technique done neatly and well. You immediately identify with our young narrator, and unconsciously his opinions on his uncles and associates become yours.
Craig is slightly unhinged, but well-meaning and determined to make his own money away from the family, while Baz is almost the father figure that J has always needed. He has his own code and morality, which he sticks to religiously.
Pope is a dangerous character, who veers between a desire to be the man of the house and look out for everyone’s wellbeing, while also maintaining a somewhat threatening and unpredictable persona.
Meanwhile, Smurf Cody is shown to take an almost incestual interest in her boys, subtly encouraging them in their excesses, while at the same time admonishing and manipulating them for her own ends.
The cat and mouse game between the Codys and the police is also handled incredibly well, as is the double life J seems to lead with his sweet-natured but complicit girlfriend.
The film seems ambivalent about the nature of the crimes the family commits, painting the police in an equally damning light. In fact, the only truly positive character is Guy Pearce’s Detective Leckie, who is seen to be an exception, rather than the rule.
I can’t help but feel that the film is deliberately playing on the Ned Kelly mythos, which is deeply ingrained in the Australian psyche. The outlaw gang wanted by a corrupt judicial system, who become poster boys for the antiauthoritarian movement. However, it definitely does not paint the criminals in any sort of positive light, and makes sure to note that there is no black and white here. Just murky grey in which motives are often confused.
However, the film takes a turn for the more mundane after the deaths of two of the more intriguing and engaging characters. When it happened, I felt it to be a misstep, and, sadly, I was to be proved right. The previously rattling pace and focus of the story slows up considerably and even begins to feel sluggish. It then descends into far too many crime family clichés, and even includes a montage sequence of such overwrought drama it wouldn’t seem out of place in EastEnders.
After several false endings, I found myself waiting for Animal Kingdom to finally lurch to its inevitable conclusion, which despite being a fitting finale, left me strangely unsatisfied. It is a shame, as the drama just tipped over from the sublime to the ridiculous, spoiling what was, up to then, a gripping and intense film experience.
On a more positive note, though, is the fact that the performances from everyone are across the board excellent. As mentioned earlier, Joel Edgerton is particularly good, but standout work also comes from Ben Mendelsohn as the creepy Pope and Jacki Weaver as Janine Cody. Both exhibit an icy chill of menace underneath their familial obligations, and for different reasons, kept me guessing as to their true intentions throughout the film.
Special mention must also go to newcomer, Frecheville, given the responsibility of anchoring the movie and taking the audience along with him. His J is seemingly monosyllabic and nonplussed by events, but just as you are wondering if this is Frecheville’s brand of acting, his character is given a scene where he delivers a powerful emotional punch in a brilliant way. After this, I believed in J’s motivations for his actions, whether or not they were illogical!
Animal Kingdom is essentially a film of two halves. Unfortunately, one is much better than the other, which leaves the movie feeling somewhat disjointed. However, it is still powerful stuff, and an intensely solid and engaging crime story which fully deserved the plaudits it has so far received.
Animal Kingdom is in UK cinemas from today, Friday, February 25th.
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