Animal Kingdom is an excellent Australian gangster movie which opened in New York on August 13 and which will be arriving in other cities in the weeks ahead. It's well worth -- well, well, well, well, well worth -- seeking out.
It's a double debut, both for the director David Michod, and for his lead actor, James Frecheville. Frecheville is so new nobody's bothered putting his DoB on IMDB, but we're told by Wikipedia that he's pretty much fresh out of high school and had to fit filming for Animal Kingdom around his final year studies. Frecheville plays Joshua "J." Cody, whom we meet at home where he's calmly if not very assuredly calling 911 following a fatal heroin overdose by his mother. Out of desperation, he moves in with his aunt, who's the matriarch of a suburban Melbourne crime family that's seen much better days. The Melbourne police have taken to resorting to extrajudicial means to deal with a crime outbreak, and J's outlaw uncles are feeling the heat. Police act, uncles react, action begets reaction and things start to escalate. The police are focusing on J as a new arrival and possible weak link as they make their inquries. His uncles and grandma are every bit as concerned, as much or more about J on his own account as on his deepening relationship with a girl. Pillow talk and all. It's not a happy home environment.
Frecheville's performance is a wonder. It's entirely self-contained. There's rarely any outward or visible emotion to be found in the exterior of his performance, yet it's abundantly clear in every frame that the young man's deeply uncertain and masking deep emotion but nonetheless also deeply calculating. It's a tinderkeg that should explode, eventually it does, but it's a targeted explosion. I can't remember when I've seen an actor do so much by seeming to do so little. Stunning performance.
The skill of the director is seen in the uniformly excellent performances that abound in the movie. Best-known in the cast is Guy Pearce, whose career is a puzzle wrapped in an enigma tied within a mystery. Here's an actor who came out in the US to deserved acclaim with roles in movies like LA Confidential and Memento, and somehow or other he's decided with what seems like genuine satisfaction to go the character actor route. Last summer briefly in Hurt Locker. Here he's got a massive mustache and thickish head of hair and an accent more than just thickish which pretty much entirely mask the actor in the role. He's playing a police detective with the lead role in investigating the Cody clan, and you're never quite sure -- not even sure if the character's sure from moment to moment -- if his interest in J is paternal or professional or both or neither.
It's hard to like the uncles, but that's on account of who they are as the performances are uniformly excellent. It's just that these people are not nice, not nice at all. They don't look nice, or act nice, or play nice. The audience feels that unpleasantness as much as we imagine J must. Which is in its way crucial. For us to see the inner life in Frecheville's performance, we have to feel the context he does.
And it's impossible to talk about the movie without also singling out Jacki Weaver for her performance as the matriarch. She's been called out as the villain of the year, and it's hard to argue. She's peeled some like the layers of an onion. When J first moves in, she's not seen or heard so much of, she's just there, quietly in the background. But you know she's too there not to be aware and part and parcel of what's happening in the family. She isn't the moll, the wife like Ray Liotta's in Goodfellas who's purposely kept at some remove. Eventually we start to see just how there she is, and it's chilling.
Michod's skills aren't just at working with actors. There are multiple scenes of great tension. A car pulling out of a garage. A traffic stop on a quiet suburban street. A raid on a house. Not the "cat jumping out of closet" tricks, but scenes that are relying on good photography, good editing, good scoring and good underscoring.
This was the first of my Monday night movies at the Landmark Sunshine a week ago (Aud. #1), and maybe I'd have liked Lebanon more if I'd seen it first and Animal Kingdom second. But seeing a bad movie like Lebanon after a good -- no, great -- movie like Animal Kingdom magnifies every flaw. And no bones about it, Animal Kingdom is a great movie.
About the title: Pearce's character likes to talk to J in animal metaphors. J is being protected by the strong animals, they're not going to be around to protect him, J will have to now take to relying on the strength of the police. Which is very much the worry of J's uncles, that J is weak and will move to the embrace of the police. Which of course says something about the uncles, that they're self aware enough of themselves to know they're not offering a young man a good place to mature, self aware to see that but not strong enough themselves to offer anything better.
And in keeping with the metaphor of the title, I'm not quite sure what the final scene suggests. Is the final embrace a recognition that the weak has become the strong, or an acknowledgment that the strongest animal isn't the one we think?
I can't encourage you enough to see Animal Kingdom, and come to your own conclusion. Let me know what you think...
- The Brillig Blogger
- A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.