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Animal Kingdom

There is an air of angry resignation at the heart of this Dostoevskian portrait of an unravelling outlaw family that lends it a sense of roiling verisimilitude. Little comment is passed on what happens, either visual or expositional, other than Guy Pearce’s emblematic and title-riffing speech two-thirds in, and we see thoroughly believable reactions and dissemblances to the often grim unfolding acts. Director David Michod’s only seeming concessions arrive through occasional elegiac slow-mo, a gliding portent of gloss that serve as timely employed breathers as much as anything. He doesn’t slam a clammy palm on any obvious emotional buttons, in other words.

Animal Kingdom has a late-eighties Melbourne family hitting a brick wall; their time has come and gone but they’re in ostensible denial. Petty criminality and in-fighting are their forte and there seems to be a pervasion of dread signalling their imminent devolvement. This effects each member differently; some self-destruct, others cop for an impatiently administered and opportunistic demise. Others, such as Ben Mendelsohn’s ‘Pope’, run the gamut between deliriously paranoiac and knee-jerk self-immolating. All of this under the gaze of creepily intimate matriarch Jacki Weaver.

Into this endangered lot comes young cousin/nephew Josh (a riveting opening turn by James Frecheville), taken on after his mother’s fatal heroin overdose (which we see the tail-end of, as paramedics stroll into the blare of an Australian gameshow and a slumped corpse) which Josh relays to his distant and unfamiliar kin in deadened tones.

Josh is seamlessly inducted into the clan amidst drug drop-offs and matter-of-fact gun-wielding rites of passage, and there is more than a little sense of Scorsese’s Goodfellas in early sequences. The voiceover emphasises the normalised nature of such escapades, and his reluctance to be ostracised from his familial remainder in motivating his head-in-the-sand equanimity. He’s going to survive, or at the very least stick with the gun-toters. As time passes, as his girlfriend becomes an integral part of the ensuing chaos and as the guns are waved in ever more uncertain directions, he has cause to reassess his loyalties, and the intervention of Guy Pearce as a police officer closing-in on this ruinous collective adds to the urgent pace of Frecheville’s looming moral/ethical crossroads.

There seems to be, from director David Michod, an underlying allegiance to these dying animals, a blackly-humourous respect for their doomed dominion and frantic self-destruction. It is an Antipodean aria of antipathy, a battened-hatches harking to eighties Melbourne and the end of an era. Mendelsohn’s paranoid-hellbent alpha male is a fascinatingly grim, seething locus of entropy. Glistening with drug-sweat and self-loathing, he exists on the tenuous possibility of febrile resolution. He is, throughout the film, struggling to embody the role of absent father (to whom no mention is made, to my recollection at least) and by rote offers unsolicited, vaguely sinister affectations of paternal guidance: ‘If there’s ever anything you need to talk about…I’m here, I want you to know that,’ is a typical example of his abrupt and uncertain attempts at ‘connecting’ and such exchanges seem to unsettle more than his stock fulminations. 

Despite a superb ensemble effort, this is Frecheville’s film. He’s particularly spot-on as an impressionable teen fast-tracked to bloodied adulthood. Jacki Weaver got a lot of attention for her performance in this, and it’s deserved. Although I’d curb the urge to pull out not one but two eyebrow-raise flourishes, like a daytime soap Hannibal Lecter, or perhaps a leering Mrs Robinson-lite, in an otherwise tense scene: it’s a jarring choice of gesture that has you jogging your memory as to whether or not it was her in Home and Away in 1989 after all.

Animal Kingdom is both fresh and cleverly cannibalistic. Scenes recall Malick, Scorsese and Lumet and Michod has an impressive dramatic hold on a potentially unwieldy number of plot strands, none of which are submerged or allowed to become incidental. No scene is wasted and everything counts, every moment further enriches characterisation and depth. These are menacing, sun-languored streets and Animal Kingdom is a powerful, engrossing and complexly-charged thriller, a must-see.

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