ANIMAL KINGDOM: survival of the wicked
March 14, 2011 § 1 Comment
You have to see it to believe it, but the darkest, edgiest, meanest piece of crime fiction put on celluloid since The Prophet comes from Australia – yes, that sunny land down under, home of the shitfaced, flip-flops wearing jocks gathering outside the Walkabout every Friday night, all year round. It’s a fucking cryptic world indeed.
Animal Kingdom chronicles the war raging in Melbourne’s underbelly between a family of armed robbers and the local police forces. Our point of entry in this highly psychopathic but chillingly functional cop-killing family is Joshua “J” Cody, the estranged nephew of gang leader and borderline incestuous maternal figure Mama Smurf. Joshua, a passive, taciturn teen whose emotions and motives remain for most the film unreadable, is reunited with his monstrous relatives after his mother, who kept him away from them all her life, overdoses on heroin. J quickly remarks that the members of the gang, composed of his uncles Barry, Craig and Darren, are “all scared”. At first, we think that it’s the police’s gung-ho behaviour that they fear (and rightly so) but it appears that Pope, the oldest Cody brother who is still on the run from a previous heist, is that pernicious, frightening presence weighting on the family despite his physical absence.
In the opening credits, first-time director David Monôd introduces a metaphor – the criminal family as a pack of lions – that he’ll stretch till the end. It actually works great, giving Animal Kingdom its thematic unity and mean-spirited worldview – proof that sometimes a strong albeit limited idea can go a long way, if developed properly.
So we have the lioness with Jeannine “Smurf” Cody, the most evil mob granny since Tony Soprano’s mom, and the alpha male with Pope, who strangely reminded me of Dustin Hoffman, if Rain Man was channelling Joe Pesci. Pope’s quirky behaviour is absolutely disturbing, and the aura of mystery surrounding the fear he inspires (besides being a killer, he may well be an incestuous paedophile, as his nickname would suggest) just reinforces that uneasy vibe he brings to every scene. In terms of animalistic body language, Ben Mendelsohn got it spot on, with his flabby cheeks and awkward, drowsy demeanour – in tune with the image of the lazy lion sure of his power, as seen in countless National Geographic documentaries. And if you think I am milking this simile out of proportion, just wait for the scene when the cops go for a hunt in the outlands.
The film’s look has nothing to do with documentary though, avoiding the naturalistic clichés in favour a very striking cinematography courtesy of Adam Arkapaw, all metallic blues and greens, with the right amount of slo-mo to coldly capture the tension, filming the protagonists in the familial home like caged animals about to devour each other. Every shot is superb, bathed in a very operatic light, displaying real pictorial flair. And while we’re mentioning the technical stuff, massive kudos to the sound designer, these shrieking, feedbacking noises in the background kept me on the edge of my seat.
Another detail that elevates Animal Kingdom above your average gangster fare is the insidious way it introduces the sordid, violent aspects of the underworld, in a non-flamboyant, inconspicuous way diluted in the all-surrounding casual Aussiness. You won’t see a close up of a heroin needle penetrating a vein for the umpteenth time; drugs are just there, on the coffee table, and so are guns. It is quite a bold (and clever) choice, since most of us aren’t used to see Aussie gangsters, and they do look like your regular “mate”, with the surfer build, vintage tee shirts and mid-long hair. An insecure director would have felt the need to prove that his criminals from Oz are as “hard” as the American ones with a couple of hardcore scenes, but not Monôd, who keeps the ubiquitous vice understated.
Animal Kingdom’s exoticism is obviously part of its appeal, but it never spoils the film – it’s authenticity more than folklore. Similarly to City of God, the geographic displacement adds some freshness to the exhausted genre, but is never overplayed to the point where the film will have to be filed under the embarrassing “world cinema” label.
Ultimately, the core theme of Animal Kingdom is pretty universal, replaying the Mephistophelean deal already seen in The Godfather II and The Prophet: if the weak embraces evil when his time comes, he will become strong. Too bad for the moralistic ending, it is another Darwinian tale of survival after all. Can’t say the title didn’t warn you.