Animal Kingdom

10 Mar

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Animal Kingdom is an Australian crime drama that tells the story of a young man who, after the death of his mother, goes to live with his Grandma and uncles. The family aren’t exactly a nice bunch, and our young man must learn to adapt and survive in their world.

The opening to the film makes it pretty clear that we’re not in line for an uplifting tale over the next couple of hours. A 17 year old boy sits watching a TV game show, next to a woman who appears to be passed out on the couch. We quickly learn that she’s been taking drugs. The next scene see’s the boy phoning his grandma, introducing himself as Josh (James Frecheville) and explaining rather casually that the lady in question was his mother, and that she had died due to a heroin overdose. That’s happened before two minutes have passed – it’s pretty bleak from the outset.

Next up, Josh introduces, by way of voiceover, the family members he’ll now be living with. His new home is inhabited by his Grandma Janine (Jacki Weaver) and his law breaking uncles. He gives us a quick description of what they’re like and explains there’s one brother missing. He goes by the name of Pope and is hiding somewhere from the police.

The performances of all the actors in this film are excellent. There’s not a poor display or mis-cast actor anywhere in sight. There are, however, three stand out performances for me.

The first comes from the young man anchoring the whole story; James Frecheville’s portrayal of Josh is simply perfect. Thrust into a world of serious crime he knows little about, Josh has to adapt from being a vulnerable teen and become a savvy operator in his new world just to survive. He may be young, but he’s not too naîve. He tells us early on that believes his uncles are scared of one crucial fact – that “crooks always come undone”. A nice line to keep at the back of your mind throughout. It is that theory, in essence, that the story hangs on.

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Josh’s story arc and character development are fantastic. He’s constantly having to react to the pressures of his family to conform to their way of life and to protect them, in the face of pressure from the police. That Frecheville portrays this development so well on screen is impressive. And whenever you think he might be fitting into his new life, there’s some nice hints at emotional immaturity. In one brilliantly placed exchange, he is asked by his girlfriend is he loves her. “Yeah”, he replies. When pushed for reasons for his answer, he says, “‘cos you’re nice”. Not exactly a great romantic then.

The next masterful performance comes from Ben Mendelsohn in the role of Uncle Pope. From the first time we meet him right through to the film’s conclusion, he owns every scene he’s in. From his perfect delivery of his dialogue, to the subtle non-verbal nuances in his performances, he is a menacing and intimidating presence on screen. He’s never likeable, and always threatening. And just think, if his character is this tense to watch, what must he be like to be around?

The final show-stealing performance comes from Jacki Weaver. As with the aforementioned characters, she is aided by an excellent story arc. We can see immediately that she is aware of her sons’ criminal activity. Indeed, she seems to encourage it. The way Grandma goes from being a seemingly peripheral character to a central one is fantastic and will surely be even more enjoyable when I give this a second watch. By the end she is clearly loving every minute of screen time afforded to her, and she’s a joy to watch.

Although there are plenty of excellent supporting roles, I must also give a mention to Guy Pierce who plays Detective Senior Sergeant Nathan Leckie and becomes an increasingly part of Josh’s life. He plays it perfect.

As always, when thinking about what score I would give this film I considered what I had enjoyed and what I had not enjoyed. Under things I loved I had the acting, the story, the dialogue, the score, the character development, the lighting, the framing (the general directing from David Michôd is exceptional). I could go on.

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Under things I wasn’t so keen on, I could find only one thing, and even this is pushing it; I felt the end to be a little too abrupt and didn’t quite tie everything up. It’s only a minor complaint though. Very very minor.

Overall, Animal Kingdom is a fantastic story backed up by exceptional acting and perfect directing that allows the stripped back performance of it’s young star to stand out. It’s bleak and it’s gritty, you won’t find much to smile at, but that’s exactly what you expect and what a film like this requires. It’s loses one mark for an ending that doesn’t quite wrap up the story, but I’m aware even as I type that that I’m probably being picky.

In short, I can not recommend this film highly enough and I’m already looking forward to my second viewing.

9/10

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