Contributor; Derby, England
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Animal Kingdom might look small-scale on paper, but David Michôd's moody Australian crime drama has a fairly broad scope. The film tracks the bickering and feuding between a Melbourne family of armed robbers and the way this mish-mash of co-dependent psychoses flies apart when a ruthless police division looking to take them out of the picture piles on the pressure. Michôd presents this through the eyes of a teenage boy unwillingly thrust into the middle of it all, and his bewilderment then growing frustration as he realises just how far out of his depth he really is provide a smart and affecting allegory for the dog-eat-dog nature of life, human bloody-mindedness, propensity for self-destruction or any number of things.

It's just a shame the director can't quite carry these grandiose ambitions all the way to the home stretch - despite some tremendous performances and one or two truly jaw-dropping moments, the plot depends to a great extent on one scene that doesn't wholly convince, and given the ending follows on from this Animal Kingdom ends up curiously unsatisfying. Nonetheless, it's an easy recommendation, an ugly little slow burn of a film that creeps relentlessly into your subconscious yet also proves deeply, unexpectedly moving, and it's one of the most impressive debut features in recent years.

The focal point is Joshua Cody (James Frecheville), a young man estranged from his extended family after his mother cut her ties with them some time in the past. When she overdoses in the opening minutes Josh has no-one else to turn to bar the grandmother his mother fled from, Janine (Jacki Weaver). 'Smurf' takes the boy under her wing, introducing him to her three sons, the brooding, near-psychotic Andrew a.k.a. 'Pope' (Ben Mendelsohn), hyperactive Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford). The clan are tight-knit to the point of obsession, but despite subsiding on armed robbery and the drug trade they're cautiously welcoming enough. But the Armed Robbery branch of the police are hell-bent on putting down the trio along with any of their friends who get in the way, and what starts out as a war of nerves soon turns into murderous paranoia, with Josh the target of the police and his uncles' suspicions.

Frecheville is Michôd's big discovery. The young actor has to hold much of the film together despite having virtually no prior experience (his character doesn't drive events, but people keep talking about what he's doing) yet he handles himself admirably with a fantastic, believably introverted performance that deserves to bring him a lot more work. He slips into straight-ahead blank-faced incomprehension once or twice, but most of the time he does a terrific job of internalising his emotions, so much so that when his mask does crack towards the end it's hugely affecting. The rest of the cast turn in equally great work for the most part, with the best roles those who command some measure of grudging sympathy. Pope's partner in crime Barry (Joel Edgerton), mulling over whether or not to get out of the game, is a standout as is, oddly, Smurf - a deeply, deeply twisted piece of work, yes, yet when Weaver also has to break down she's so utterly naturalistic about it you end up struggling not to feel for the woman.

Michôd's script is at its best when it's oblique, all the Codys dancing round the problem, refusing to admit what's going on while the rogue police unit pick them off one by one. The director falters when he has to give the narrative some impetus to get it into the home stretch, when the police (in particular Guy Pearce's world-weary officer) step up their efforts to get Josh to turn on his adoptive family. The basic plot points are fine, but - trying to avoid spoiling anything - several characters simply aren't developed enough for their actions in the most important part of this final story arc to feel properly believable. There's too much emphasis on foreshadowing the scene in question, to the point you know it's coming, but when it actually happens it's over and done with so fast you're left waiting for further clarification that never comes. Following that, the climax feels frustratingly disconnected, and the very last shot inconclusive, as if it hasn't properly made its point.

Admittedly this is partly nitpicking. Animal Kingdom is still a great, great film where cast and crew frequently excel - there are no especially complicated visuals, but Michôd and DP Adam Arkapaw give Melbourne a gritty, washed-out beauty, eerie and barren but never wallowing in miserablism. The music leans on a few too many amiable pop standards, but Anthony Mantos' score is elegantly melancholic. For a debut feature, it's a laudable stab at a prestige piece as well as a gripping, queasy little drama with an impressive sense of moral ambiguity. Animal Kingdom might tread familiar ground to some extent, but it's done well enough it should still lodge in your head for quite some time. If you're after a smart, savage ensemble thriller that builds and builds and refuses to let you get up walk away - and you don't mind it can't quite swing the last half an hour or so - David Michôd's debut comes strongly recommended.  


Optimum Home Entertainment's UK BluRay of Animal Kingdom - available to buy now - gives the film an excellent presentation with a substantial collection of meaningful extra material. The disc starts off with three trailers for forthcoming releases - Dog Pound, Biutiful, and Blue Valentine - all of which can be skipped, though only one by one. Menus are simple, but eye-catching, presenting the Cody family tree over one of the promotional images for the film, and they're clear and easy to navigate. The film itself is divided into twelve chapter stops including the end credits.

The basic 5.1 DTS track is clean and clear, handling dialogue, score and the insert songs equally well with a pleasingly warm, balanced mix - though Animal Kingdom contains little if anything to give anyone's speaker system a workout. Optional subtitles are large, easy to read and virtually free from errors, though only the main feature has been subtitled, none of the extras. Unusually for the Optimum releases I've seen there's actually an audio description included - the narrator speaks clearly and distinctly and the additional details of what's going on seem appropriately chosen.

The picture is excellent - though the film contains a definite level of grain and paler, washed-out colours it seems clear these are stylistic choices more than any technical limitations. When characters or props come fully into focus there's an appreciable level of clarity, with good definition even on blacks and darker shades. The softer approach means it's probably not demo material, but this is still an outstanding disc.

Extras are many. First off, we have two commentary tracks, one with David Michôd by himself, the other where he's joined by most of the main cast. The solo track is a very quiet affair, with the director proving extremely reticent, not to mention self-deprecating (' this boring? It's probably boring') but he does warm to the task a little as he goes on. It's largely just reminiscing about the shoot, but it does throw up some reasonably interesting observations if you're into that sort of thing.

The cast commentary is a lot stranger, more like an extended discussion and not specifically tied to what's on screen. They start by explaining they've been arguing over who should participate, and Ben Mendelsohn (Pope) adds he refuses to watch himself on screen - though once they get going he proves one of the most voluble of the group. It's not up to something like the infamous group commentary on Bound, but like their characters the principals come across as a close-knit group swapping banter at a rate of knots, and are definitely worth listening to at least once.

The biggest standalone extra is a seventy minute Making Of piece that starts at Sundance 2010 (where Animal Kingdom won Best Film) and then works its way through the history of the film from conception to realisation. It's a little scrappy, as these things tend to be, and there's still a great deal of back-slapping, but it talks to all the main cast and crew, draws from a mixture of interviews, casting footage and the like and proves much more than fluff.

There are also a number of separate interviews with Michôd and all the main cast members; these are still worth a look, but more like electronic press kit material, edited somewhat awkwardly and with a lot of telling people what they ought to already know if they've watched the film. They range from a few minutes down to less than thirty seconds in length, and they have very crude intertitles, though this might be just in place for the check disc.

The last extra is the trailer, the same one Optimum have been using to promote the film's UK release. It manages a solid impression of the film's aesthetic, though not of its pacing, plus it's yet another that risks giving away a few too many of the plot twists.

Animal Kingdom is not entirely the show-stopper it's clearly trying to be - David Michôd's script can't quite keep its lofty aspirations going all the way through, with a dearth of character development right when the film needs it most and a climax that seems a bit too much like a foregone conclusion. It's still an outstanding debut feature that makes Michôd a name to watch and a gripping, compellingly ugly little drama, beautifully put together with some terrific performances. Optimum Home Entertainment's UK BluRay release gives the film a beautiful presentation, with an excellent picture and sound and a number of solid, rewarding extra features. Consider it strongly recommended.

(Thanks go to Optimum Home Entertainment and ThinkJam for facilitating this review.)
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