Billy Gray

Animal Kingdom

In Movie Reviews on September 10, 2010 at 2:41 pm

The criminal underworld is a murky place.  It’s filled with gangsters with ulterior motives; scheming molls; tenuous, shifting allegiances; and well-laid plans gone awry. The Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom doesn’t attempt to sort out this mess. But instead of feeling accurately inaccurate, David Michôd’s film winds up more muddled than its thorny subject.

A good gangster movie needs a protagonist to corrupt. Here it’s J (a stolid, forgettable James Frecheville), whose mom ODs in the opening scene, leaving him in the care of his drug-running, gun-toting extended family. The cops are after J’s uncle, “Pope” (Ben Mendelsohn), who comes out of hiding to have the usual ragtag crew of fools do his sinister bidding. This includes gunning down a couple of police officers after the authorities shoot Barry (Joel Edgarton), an underling who was on the verge of giving up the game and becoming an upstanding citizen. Needless to say, things go downhill until the very last frame.

Animal Kingdom plays like a highlight real of mob saga components. Cocaine is hoovered. Blood splatters over rental-white walls. And inane Top 40 songs make for jarring background music to the violent mayhem. But the film doesn’t feel like a knockoff. It might have been great, instead of very good, if it had.

This is an Australian film. But aside from the accents, you wouldn’t know it. The setting is Melbourne, but Animal Kingdom never establishes a sense of place. And crime movies need a bold background to support their shadowy, convoluted plots. Think of the brightly decadent Cuba of Godfather Part II, the gaudy Bronx of Goodfellas, or bleached Los Angeles sprawl of Heat. Vivid locations are necessary in these kinds of movies. They’re the only things that ground the viewer in a sea of perfidy.

While technically sharp and fitfully engaging, Animal Kingdom is confused in tone. It straddles the genre line between Martin Scorsese’s gleeful, colorful, but still sinister bombast and Michael Mann’s cool, brooding, minimalism. And there’s one twist too many—at one point I was just as confused as the witness protection agents about which bad guys had busted their safe house, and how. The movie trips up the viewer just as its characters—good, bad and in between—trip over themselves. You don’t want this type of movie to play by the numbers, but Animal Kingdom is too eager to abandon straightforward narrative.

Viewers feel similarly detached from the characters. Exposition is largely avoided and motives kept at bay. At times this is effective. You’re just as vulnerable as the hapless thugs you’re watching. But it’s tough to feel invested in, or troubled by the undoing, of anyone on screen.

It’s a shame because the acting is solid. Mendelsohn’s Pope intimidates even as he’s the only character with a decent sense of humor. Nicky Henry, as played by Laura Wheelwright, is a sympathetic, lost mess. And the interplay between J and his cousin Darren (Luke Ford) is compelling enough to make you wish Michôd, who also wrote the screenplay, developed their relationship beyond a single line mentioning a childhood friendship.  Cops play second fiddle to the robbers here, but Guy Pearce gives a steely, understated performance as lead investigator Leckie.

Jacki Weaver steals the show, even if you call her transformation from meek mob hausfrau to Lady Macbeth an hour before it occurs (and narrowly avoids high camp). This wizened matriarch might dress like a loose teenager, but runs a tight ship like a don in his ruthless prime.

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