Archive for June, 2010

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Animal Kingdom

June 17, 2010

‘Animal Kingdom’
David Michôd | Australia | 2010 | 112 mins

Animal Kingdom is the kind of film which, in the hands of another director, could easily have been trite and histrionic. And for all of Michôd’s astuteness, the material is nonetheless typical crime-drama stuff, albeit given an impeccable polish and infused with details preventing banality. It does not and could not have the scope and ambition of, say, The Wire or The Sopranos, and this minor family/police saga, as strong as it is, isn’t exactly teeming with complex ideas or advancing the genre in a time when HBO is achieving just that. But enough of this unfair comparison and on to Animal Kingdom‘s accomplishments.

The film is loosely based on the Walsh Street police shootings of 1988, and though Michôd’s telling takes place today, he charts the consequences of the pseudo-vigilantism inherent in the police’s procedure to apprehend criminals at the time. That Michôd presents the killings in as cold-blooded a fashion and style (or colder, given for instance the more brutal account of Graeme Jensen’s death) as that of the police’s procedure indicates a clear criticism of such action. However, he is careful enough to depict the criminals equally as merciless, and though we observe the Cody family for the most part, there’s no glorifying in any way. In fact, they’re not even built up to later be torn down (as in Goodfellas); we meet them at the beginning of their downfall, as our young protagonist ‘J’ (played superbly by newcomer James Frecheville) enters the family. All we learn of the family’s armed robbery past is relayed in photos and clippings underneath the opening titles. Michôd never gives in to genre or dramatic sensationalism or easy judgments, and is more interested in mapping the emotional, the psychological, and the procedural.

The handsome, oppressive cinematography inscribes much of this detached viewpoint. The (surely excessive) slow motion sequences, quiet zooms, occassional silhouetting and general low lighting, shallow shifting focus, relatively long takes, and offscreen action together generate a mood of inevitable tragedy. It’s inevitable in that contemplative Michael Mann way, and tragic not at all in a romanticised or melodramatic fashion, but it’s not entirely objective either as it coolly watches this sad tale unfurl. The richness of the mise-en-scène extends to the clothing here; Ben Mendelsohn’s Hawaiian shirt shows his age and general daginess, especially when compared to Luke Ford’s more fashionable brother, and this difference makes for a good little scene in which Ford is criticised by Mendelsohn for his “gay” clothes and choice of drink -making it clear that it’s okay if he’s gay, just as long as he’s open about it. This is fairly typically Australian goading, and certainly the behaviour of an older brother hoping to restore a noncommunicative, disintegrating family. ‘J’s generally baggy clothing conveys his initial naiveté and introverted nature, and Jackie Weaver’s somewhat youthful but smart attire perfectly displays her female cunningness.

The Hawaiian shirt, along with Guy Pearce’s dated moustache, and a lack of temporal identifiers blur to an extent the time in which the film is set. We know it’s modern day for ‘J’ is distracted by Deal or No Deal on TV in the opening scene (and there are mobile phones), but perhaps Michôd is purposefully alluding back to when the real events occured. Because a precise time is irrelevant? To suggest little change in police procedure? To distance itself from the true story while also drawing from it? It’s strange.

Animal Kingdom doesn’t possess the detail and authenticity of Rowan Woods’ The Boys, however, and in more than just its mise-en-scène. Though Michôd’s is more of a genre film that aims for classical grandness and Woods’ a raw, vigorously real portrayal of working class criminals, the latter is the more probing and insightful and is void of clichés (no matter how carefully Kingdom masks or underplays its tropes, they are tropes nonetheless). Michôd’s Cody family is likened to a pride of lions, the title and plaque shown in the opening makes this more than clear, and it’s this animalistic tension that makes the family interaction interesting. But given the scale of the drama here, such moments are unfortunately few, especially compared to The Boys which plunges the depths of terrifyingly volatile human terrain.

Though it will likely be considered to many as one of the finest Australian films ever made, Animal Kingdom does not find new ground as a crime piece, nor is there much more to it than its well-played tale of a family’s downfall. But it does what it does with such a finesse and intelligence that it makes for suspenseful and engrossing viewing.