This makes four.
One of the great things about the four--yes, four--great crime films released in the United States this year is that they’re all different, while familiar at the same time. Winter’s Bone, which I reviewed in my last piece for The Rap Sheet, is a detective story with a tough, smart-assed protagonist. The Red Riding trilogy, which will be released on DVD on August 31, is a sweeping epic covering a decade that evokes The Godfather in what it has to say about its setting and culture, while also being the best police-corruption drama since Prince of the City. A Prophet, about the rise of a criminal, has plenty in common with Scarface, but remains in one location, low-key, and less-than-lavish for much of its running time. In honoring the past, these films create something new.
Which brings us to Animal Kingdom, the brilliant new crime thriller from Australian writer-director David Michôd. Based on the true story of two Melbourne crime families in the 1980s, this film follows three generations of very bad people doing very bad things. When teenager Joshua Cody’s mother dies of a heroin overdose, the inexpressive boy-- nicknamed “J” and played with subtlety by James Frecheville--goes to live with his grandmother and four uncles. Although those uncles are bank robbers and drug dealers, members of a mid-level crime syndicate, the new living situation provides Josh with much-needed stability and comfort ... until rogue police officers kill Barry Brown (Joel Edgerton), the de facto head of that syndicate. The power vacuum created by Brown’s death sends the remaining members of the Cody family into a downward spiral of paranoia and violence, leaving Josh caught between his psychotic uncle “Pope” (Ben Mendelsohn) and a determined police detective, Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce).
While many reviews of Animal Kingdom compare it to The Godfather, I don’t think those comparisons are fair beyond the surface fact that both features have to do with crime families. Michôd’s direction and style remind me of the best of director Michael Mann’s films, particularly Heat through Collateral. His command of this picture’s visuals helps set it apart from other crime films of a similar nature. While Michôd litters the movie and screenplay with allusions to the title, painting this family as a literal pack of lions, he never overdoes it. You never find yourself rolling your eyes at the metaphor.
Beyond that, the cinematography here is gorgeous, striking, and there’s one sequence near the middle of the film that stunned me with how well put together it was. Animal Kingdom has several wordless sequences like that, including one that’s set to a song from pop titans Air Supply.
Animal Kingdom delivers across-the-board excellent work from everyone behind the scenes, but I’ve got to recognize cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, and the 1980s-ish score from composer Sam Petty. Petty’s music, along with a few key pop-culture references and J’s opening narration, lends the film a timelessness that feels rooted in the past but also very much of the present.
Beyond the technical mastery of this film, Michôd fills his Kingdom (I’m so very sorry, but hey, it was six paragraphs before I got to that first pun) with one of the most impressive cast rosters in recent memory, up to and including Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables. It’s a true ensemble film, with each actor working in tandem with the others. No performer feels neglected, and each gets more than a couple of moments, big scenes, or monologues in which to shine.
This is James Frecheville’s first film, and I was quite impressed by his work here. J is a hard character to portray, silent and monosyllabic, yet Frecheville excels in the role, more than keeping up with the accomplished actors around him. Luke Ford’s Darren, the lead drug dealer of the family, is similar to J, imperceptible and simmering in silence, but aside from a few scenes, I didn’t really connect with him in the way I did with some of the other players. Still, it’s Frecheville and Ford who make me eager for a second viewing of Animal Kingdom.
Also worth watching is Sullivan Stapleton, as the drug-addicted and paranoid Craig, who delivers one of two star-making performances in Animal Kingdom. One of Michôd’s gifts as a director is letting his actors use silence, and watching Craig simmer gives the film a remarkable tension. More than once, I wondered when Hollywood would come knocking at Stapleton’s door.
I haven’t talked much about Guy Pearce, who’s probably the most recognizable member of the Animal Kingdom cast. His Detective Ed Exley in L.A. Confidential is beloved by me (and probably you), and I couldn’t help but feel he was just playing a variation on that role here, less ethical but still very much a “white knight.” I like Pearce plenty as an actor, and it’s nice to see him working, but he’s merely solid in this film, not groundbreaking like some of the actors around him.
Joel Edgerton is best known to American audiences for his minor part in the Star Wars prequels. As Barry Brown, he’s the anchor for the crime family, and immediately, you understand this guy and where he’s coming from. Barry represents the “good” elements of the family, paternal with J and brotherly with Darren, and if Animal Kingdom has a flaw, it’s that there’s not enough of Edgerton in it.
Which brings us to Ben Mendelsohn and Jacki Weaver, who, along with Michôd, attract most of the critical praise to this film, and rightfully so. Both the psychotic Pope and Weaver’s Janine (nicknamed “Smurf”) rank among the best “villain” performances in recent memory. They know how to use silence in chilling ways; two of the most frightening moments in Animal Kingdom come from scenes in which these characters simply look at other characters, emotion (or lack thereof) playing across their faces.
Mendelsohn is the dark side of the Cody family, manipulative and demented, paranoid in a way that Stapleton isn’t, but single-minded when it comes to protecting himself (and the clan). There’s a scene between him and Luke Ford in which the older man insults Ford’s sexuality, using the young man’s obvious conflict and discomfort to make him agree to what he wants. Weaver has been the face of Animal Kingdom in its ads, and she’s brilliant at portraying the protective lioness under a sweet, grandmotherly demeanor. In my last piece, I mentioned how I'd like to see John Hawkes pick up an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor this year, and right now, I would like nothing more than to see Weaver join him on the Supporting Actress side.
I saw Red Riding in a single afternoon early this year, and while I’ve watched a number of terrific movies since then, I was skeptical that any rivals would top it when it came to being my favorite film of the year. But since spending two hours with the Cody family a week ago, Animal Kingdom might have surpassed that masterpiece as my favorite film of 2010. Not only does this movie bring a great new director roaring (OK, pun number two!) into theaters, but it’s filled with a cast of actors who you’ll swear cinematic loyalty to from here on out. After Animal Kingdom, I’ll watch anything Michôd directs, or anything these actors are in.
Animal Kingdom: so good, it deserves its own verse in “We Are Australians.”