Film Review: Animal Kingdom (2010)

By James Madden. Viewed 09.06.10

Amidst the buzz and the hoopla that so rarely hits the Australian film industry comes David Michod’s feature film debut Animal Kingdom in a blaze of glory. Loosely based on the Walsh Street Murders in the 1990s, Animal Kingdom centers around the Cody family. When Josh “J”‘s mother dies of a heroin overdose, grandmother Jeanine “Smurf” comes to J’s aid and takes him under her wing and into the Cody family home alongside three notoriously criminal uncles. Add a dozen deaths and a few interrogation scenes into the picture, and you’ve got a full film.

Renowned as the film restoring faith in the Australian film industry, Animal Kingdom is indeed carrying a lot of weight on its shoulders that goes beyond being just the latest Aussie film. Coming out of the Sundance Film Festival with the Grand Jury Prize for Best World Dramatic film, Animal Kingdom has been receiving great word of mouth for months, and now that it is finally out in the cinemas, the word is only spreading further.

What is so good about Animal Kingdom is that it is not just another crime piece. We are in a state of crime love at the moment, with the popularity of local and international films and series, ranging from the Underbelly series, Bones, Dexter, CSI, NCIS, not to mention the Law and Order series and its many franchises, among many, many more. However, what is different about Michod’s film is its highly developed story and complex characters.

Behind this brilliant script comes intensely layered and emotionally driven performances. Perhaps the most layered and idiosyncratic performances are given by James Frecheville and Jacki Weaver. Without spoiling too much of the story, let alone the performances, it is with great choice and skill in which Janine thrives. With a liking of creepily kissing her sons of the mouth for just a little too long, Janine is a typical crime matriarchal mother. And yet at the same time, there is something more sinister coming out of this woman. As the ultimate family driven and loving mother, her motives are clear, and yet her actions are unspeakable.

Newcomer Frecheville (Introducing James Frecheville, as it states in the billing) delivers such an accomplished performance for someone so young. His inexperience is perfectly placed in the character of J. His choices of playing J as monotone, silenced, scared and naive create such an authentically real person. His lack of emotions (sans one pivotal emotional scene) show such smart decisions in not only his performance, but behind Michod’s direction.

Animal Kingdom features a dazzling Australian cast including the aforementioned newcomer Frecheville, seasoned veteran Jacki Weaver, AFI award winners Luke Ford (The Black Balloon) and Joel Edgerton (The Square), Sullivan Stapleton, Guy Pearce and Ben Mendelsohn in a terrifying performance. Do not miss this film!

Animal Kingdom is in limited release in Australia now. It is playing at the Los Angeles Film Festival and opens in America on August 13.

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