Jacki Weaver (left) and Joel Edgerton in Animal Kingdom
by Richard von Busack
Supposedly, an Old West mountain man is listening to a civilian describing the Apaches: “They don’t know the difference between right and wrong!” He replies, “Why don’t you wrong one…and see what happens.” That story comes to mind when watching the sharp, tense Aus-noir Animal Kingdom by David Michod, another member of the Blue Tongue collective whose films are revitalizing the Australian film industry.
The main character is the soft-headed, morally childlike J (James Frecheville)–a hulking sad sack with a dim constellation of acne around his downturned, too small mouth. After his mom dies of a heroine overdose, he’s taken into the scary embrace of his Ma Barkerish grandmother (the incredible Jacki Weaver) and her brood of career criminals.
J ends up caught in the war between the crooked Melbourne drug squad and the family, and casualties are mounting. One soldier in this fight: an uncertainly honest police detective (Guy Pearce). Michod’s script requires some sharp hearing, as pronounced by the heavily-accented cast…including a nightmarish Ben Mendelsohn as the clan’s none-too-sane mastermind, referred to as “Pope”. Listen closely and you’ll hear some dark gems; recalling happy times with one of his uncles, J. says “We used to throw rocks at cars together.”
Unfortunately, Animal Kingdom doesn’t really snap together; the pace is erratic; and Michod’s choice of emphasis–what he includes and what he deletes–seems arbitrary. When key characters make a turn from passive to active, you don’t feel completely prepared even if the suprise works—the clues really weren’t there. The way Michod cuts away from the film’s main action sequence, a car crash and an an ambush, goes beyond what must have been the film’s main idea: to show us the selective gaze and uncertain memory of a mentally damaged teen. The looking-away can sometimes make you feel left hung out to dry in mid-scene.
Nevertheless, Animal Kingdom is an impressive thriller, closer in spirit to Jim Thompson than many an actual adaptation. The finale is a shocker. And if the movie raises more questions sometimes than it answers, it resolves the story of J with explosive emphasis: he’s a grown up animal at last.