REVIEW: ANIMAL KINGDOM
Directed by David Michôd. Starring James Frecheville, Ben Mendelsohn, Jackie Weaver, Guy Pearce. 113mins.
In cinemas February 25.
From the opening scene of David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom, it’s clear that his characters inhabit an unnervingly inhumane world. Sitting in a dingy apartment, J (James Frecheville) calmly watches a gameshow as paramedics burst in and fruitlessly attempt to revive his unconscious mother. When J later calls his grandmother Janine, she immediately accepts him into her home but also fails to mourn her late daughter. Apparently when it’s survival of the fittest, there’s no time for tears.
Jackie Weaver plays Janine Cody, the Ma Barker-type matriarch of an Australian criminal gang, who are being pursued by a ruthless and corrupt Armed Robbery Police Squad. Janine’s three youngest sons all exude a vicious energy, but are also fiercely loyal to their family, coming to heel whenever Janine sensually beckons. However eldest son Pope (the chillingly sinister Ben Mendelsohn) is an untameable sociopath, who delights in toying with J and his brothers before lashing out at them. And when one of the Cody clan is murdered by the renegade police, it’s Pope who recklessly seeks revenge, endangering not only the foundation of this family, but J’s life.
The central metaphor of Michôd’s film is not subtle, but his exploration of it is surprisingly graceful. Though car chases, shocking bouts of violence and dramatic plot twists punctuate Animal Kingdom, the pace is almost agonizingly slow and tense. Though the external threats of murder and imprisonment forever hang in the air, Michôd brilliantly focuses on the palpable sense of paranoia in the Cody household, bringing an intriguing dynamic to this cops and robbers tale.
Though there’s no superfluous dialogue, the characters’ motivations and skills of manipulation are never in question, a feat owed to both the intelligent writing and the flawless performances. Newcomer Frecheville is sublime as the monosyllabic J, and Guy Pearce provides a soothing presence as a sympathetic detective trying to help him. However it’s Oscar nominee Weaver who steals the show as the psychosexual sweetie-pie Smurf, who shows why you should never get between a lioness and her cubs.
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Occasional lagging moments and an oppressive score dilute the effect of Michôd’s debit, but overall Animal Kingdom is a brilliantly chilling and slow-burning thriller.