Monday, January 17, 2011


The ties that bind (tight)

By Edward Copeland
At 17, Josh Cody (James Frecheville) faces the sad burden of having to move on when his single mom dies from a heroin overdose. Not only is he a young man suddenly alone, he's also left to handle the post-death duties such as funeral arrangements, etc., so he turns to his long-estranged grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver) for help and a place to stay. Only too soon in writer-director David Michôd's Animal Kingdom does Josh realize that his mom had good reason to keep him away from her family and that he'd probably been better off fending for himself.

Yes, Josh's mom was a heroin addict, but she probably was the most upstanding member of the Cody clan. In its own warped way, Animal Kingdom asks the age-old question about child rearing: Which is more important — heredity or environment? For Josh's sake, he better hope environment, even if that meant life with a junkie.

You see, the rest of Janine's children, three sons, still live with her in her crowded Melbourne, Australia, home. The two eldest, along with the oldest's best friend, support her with a life of crime and thuggery for which they immediately start trying to apprentice Josh as they already are doing with their youngest brother.

The Cody boys aren't especially good teachers and it's a miracle they've lasted as long as they have because things start unraveling for them rather quickly after Josh, who they take to calling J, arrives, though it's just a matter of coincidental timing.

It's best for me not to even attempt to go into plot specifics with the number of twists and developments that occur throughout the course of Animal Kingdom, so instead I'll concentrate on its excellent cast.

Frecheville was a wise pick as the blank-faced, wide-eyed innocent who may have lived with a drugged-out mother but has had no preparation for the rogues and assholes who make up this criminal crew, but they start showing him immediately that life isn't a bowl of cherries, it's a speeding car ride to hell.

His uncle Andrew (Ben Mendelsohn) may be called Pope by most, but it's unlikely that anyone has received blessings or absolution from him. He truly is an angry, violent thug whose specialty is armed robbery with his best friend Barry (Joel Edgerton). Unfortunately, Pope isn't skilled enough that he's escaped police notice, but as Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) memorably said on TV's Homicide: Life on the Street: "Crime makes you stupid."

J's Uncle Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) tends to stick drug dealing to hold up his part of supporting dear old mum and he's a manic mess, even when not stoned. In contrast, young Uncle Darren (Luke Ford) is a very quiet sort who might be as uncomfortable with his surroundings as J is as a new arrival.

It's their matriarch Janine who is the real piece of work. Weaver has been deservedly garnering many kudos for her work. Janine doesn't seem as if she has any connection to her sons' line of work for most of the film, but she does display an unhealthy degree of affection toward all of them, constantly demanding greetings with full-on kisses on the lips that make her seem as if she's a friendly version of Angela Lansbury's Mrs. Iselin with a desire to mate with all her offsprings.

Once her boys are in danger, the true dark side of Janine comes out. As she tells her lawyer when Pope and Darren end up in jail and she suggests a solution you would never expect from such a seemingly loving grandmother, sometimes you have to do things you wouldn't do otherwise. Weaver though never shifts into pure villainy when her change comes, always keeping her sunny demeanor even while suggesting such a vile act and plotting how to bring it about.

Who hasn't received enough attention for a great performance is Mendelsohn. In Pope, he truly creates a frightening portrait of someone who can commit acts of stunning cruelty (and worse) and then turn around moments later and act as if everything's hunky dory and not understand why others still seem shocked. It's just as normal to him to commit an unneeded murder as to supervise a family cookout.

Edgerton also is quite good as Pope's best friend who, while as violent a criminal as Pope, does display more humor and humanity. His scenes with J are quite nice as he shows the teen a bit of the illegal ropes, but with mostly good spirits and attempts at camaraderie. It's a shame we don't get more of him.

Two others in the cast worth noting are the great Guy Pearce as a police detective who takes an interest in J, initially to try to squeeze information out of him, but eventually to try to save him from his situation, and Laura Wheelwright as a girl from a nice suburban Melbourne family that J starts dating who unfortunately finds herself a pawn when J and his relatives find themselves at odds.

For a domestic crime drama, Michôd moves Animal Kingdom at a leisurely pace, making it take a while to get into the film's rhythm, but once you do, it is involving. Most of the credit has to go to the casting, especially Weaver, Mendelsohn and Frecheville, who makes a winning audience surrogate.

As Pope says at one point in the film, "It's a crazy fuckin' world" and that's certainly the case with the universe Animal Kingdom creates.

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As an Aussie, I'm glad you liked it! I did too, but my only real qualm is a major one: James Frecheville, who I think makes anything but a winning audience surrogate. I found him the most uninteresting and unhelpful kind of blank page that a protagonist could possibly be...Fortunately, the gaping hole that he and his character left was amply filled by everyone around him to result in a solidly satisfying movie - and you'll probably be pleased to learn that Mendelsohn had a virtually monopoly on Oz Best Actor awards for this role, so he didn't go as unrecognised as you may have believed.
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