Watching Animal Kingdom is like going on a roller coaster – when you strap yourself in and let the carriage carry you on the journey, it may seem really slow at first until the carriage reaches the tipping point. You are rolled around until you feel sick in your stomach and vainly try to will the roller coaster to stop. Just when you think it’s stopping and that you have reached the end, it rolls you around again for the last time.
That is Animal Kingdom in a nutshell.
It’s a gritty, taut movie about a dysfunctional criminal family that would roll you around on a cinematic roller coaster journey. The movie is opened with a scene of a young guy named Joshua “J” Cody ( played convincingly by a newcomer – James Frecheville) watching Deal or No Deal on TV while her mum is slumped on the sofa. She’s dead – overdosed on heroin. J ends up calling her estranged grandmother, who turns out to be the matriarch of a family of criminals. All of J’s uncles are criminals one way or the other, including the effectively scary Uncle Pope (Ben Mendelsohn). If there’s one guy you wouldn’t want to mess around with, it would be him. He looks disarmingly ‘simple’ and yet he is like a timebomb who can blow up at any second, on any trigger. When a tragedy strikes the family, they act to avenge the death by killing two policemen. (Apparently this is inspired by the Walsh Street shootings incident in 1980’s in Melbourne). J who was quite reluctant to be dragged into the mess, at the end has to decide which path he wants to make. Guy Pearce also stars in this thriller as a sympathetic senior homicide detective, Nathan Leckie who tries his best to save J from the mess.
The stand-outs in this movie are Ben Mendelsohn as Uncle Pope and Jacki Weaver, who plays the matriarch, Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody. Weaver is so despicably nice – all motherly and seemingly nice and loving, while at the same time being entirely evil. You would understand it after you see the movie. The director, David Michôd, steers the movie carefully and effectively through the story, keeping it tight and well-controlled (He also makes a cameo appearance in the movie as the reporter). It is also interesting that he brings across a character from his previous short movie in 2006: Ezra White, LL.B. In this movie Ezra is the family’s lawyer – also played by the same actor, Dan Wyllie.
I am not surprised that the movie has won the World Cinema Jury Prize from the Sundance Film Festival 2010. After so much glamourisation of crime through numerous Underbelly series, this is a movie that shows you that once you cross the line, it’s a life of paranoia, fear, distrust, and deceit. It’s definitely a movie to watch.