Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom

Film review by: Witney Seibold

David Michôd’s Aussie crime drama “Animal Kingdom” offers an interesting perspective to the usual Crime Family film: it’s mostly told from the perspective of the family’s hanger-on. Stories of this nature are often in the hands of the pure-hearted kid who will be corrupted by his family’s business (“The Godfather”), or the undercover cop who will take them down (“The Departed”). “Animal Kingdom” is, in almost Dickens fashion, told from the eye of “J” Cody (James Frecheville), the borderline retarded meathead teen whois forced to lives with his family of petty criminals after his father dies.

 

I have compared this film to “The Godfather,” “The Departed,” and to Charles Dickens. “Animal Kingdom,” let me assure you, is not as good as any of those. In fact, for a film of this prestige and ambition, I was surprised at how dull and free of incident it was. There are no major heists pulled, and there is little talk of the crimes that will be executed. We do get to see the unsavory behavior of mentally unstable Uncle Andrew (Ben Mendelsohn), and everyone in the Cody family seems to have some sort of unsavory character element, but we never get a good taste of the allure of this lifestyle they lead. All we really feel palpable is their fear of the police (represented by Guy Pearce), and the constant need to stay hidden.

 

“Animal Kingdom” smarts come from the banality of the criminal lifestyle. It shows the drudgery and workaday boredom of people who devote themselves to crime, but really spend most of their time staving off mind-crushing boredom by entertaining unfounded fantasies of betrayal, and paranoid flights of fantasy. Crime doesn’t pay kids. Especially when you’re in between gigs. Had “Animal Kingdom” been more devoted to being a mood piece (Lynne Ramsay could have done wonders with this material) then it could have been one of the best films of the year. But Michôd’s approach was to make it feel like a typical thriller. The downside to this, is that he didn’t include any action to bookend the middle drama, making it free-form and without basis. I understand that the boredom of criminals can be a dramatically interesting problem, but the boredom of the audience is not.

What’s more, our narrator is such a lunkhead that we don’t really care much for him, or for his fate. He does have a change of conscious partway through the film, but we know that he’s not imaginative enough to escape his rut, nor intelligent enough to take down his family with any panache. All his reactions are base and primitive. This is not a clever, tragic conceit. This is mistakenly assuming that we’ll sympathize with a dumb character merely because he’s in a bad situation beyond his control.

 

I must devote at least a paragraph to the rather good performance of Jacki Weaver as the family’s hang-wringing matron Janine. Weaver plays the part exactly the way it should be played; as a tough-love mom. She doesn’t get her hands dirty when it comes to the (unseen) crimes, and acts of random revenge against the police, but she does know when to put her foot down, and, near the film’s end, when she’s charging into office wearing sinister, cat-like smiles, trying to snivel/strongarm various lawyers and police underlings, she comes across as a hugely powerful and villainous presence. For these few scenes, the true purpose of “Animal Kingdon’s” familial themes come to light. Weaver was nominated for an Academy Award for her role, and it’s no wonder why.

Sadly, as a whole, “Animal Kingdom” is dull, often hard to follow, and contains few characters we’re interested in. It was something of an underground hit here in the States, and it is indeed atmospheric, and has some interesting ideas, but it ultimately is too flat to say much about.

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Published in: on March 1, 2011 at 2:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

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