Wednesday, August 11, 2010

David Michôd's ferocious Sundance winner ANIMAL KINGDOM arrives from Australia

Few films have opened this year (or, for that matter, over the past few years) trailing such extravagant praise as ANIMAL KINGDOM, the new criminal-family, character-study, cops-n-robbers thriller written and directed by David Michôd, whose first full-length film this is. I'm happy to report that in some important ways, the film fully justifies that praise. Gripping and surprising in equal measure from its first few frames, the movie is at once fascinating and ferocious in its depiction of a near-complete absence of, appreciation for, or understanding of the social contract, so far as the family at the center of things and their police nemeses are concerned.  You'd have to go back to Gomorrah to find a more shocking and deadening movie, though that one dealt with an enormously wide canvas of society.  Michôd keeps his story (and often his camera) much more tightly focused.

The movie opens with a young man and an older woman both on the living room sofa.  The young man is watching what appears to be some sort of "bridal show" on television, as the woman next to him sleeps. While this description nicely fits what we see, it does not begin to describe what is actually going on -- all of which comes clear in the minute or two that follows.  From this simply terrific beginning, Michôd, shown at right, takes his young protagonist (below), who hails from a side of the family that has fallen from favor, and places him in the middle of an explosive situation that could easily destroy, if not utterly degenerate, him -- but in either case will force him to grow up very quickly.

From here, we're introduced to the rest of that family and some of its friends, business partners and enemies -- the last made up mostly of cops, both clean and dirty.  The dialog slams us into the midst of it all and like much good screen-writing, allows us to piece things together only bit by bit, somewhat in the manner of our protagonist, called "J," who is a fairly strapping 17-year-old, but one who seems innately shy and retiring.  This places him quickly and (in)securely at the bottom of the family totem pole, and the performance by newcomer James Frecheville is stunningly on target.  This young actor captures nearly everything possible about his unformed character; he seems utterly real at every moment, perhaps because of the urgency involved in his immediate need to grow up.

The family that "adopts" J includes "mom" (a great performance by evergreen Aussie star Jacki Weaver, above), two of her three offspring and their business partner. A hotter lot of males you'e not likely to see on screen these days: beefy, sexy, energized to a fare-thee-well and ready for anything, especially what's not so good for them.  (That's Sullivan Stapleton as brother Craig, below.)

When we finally meet the missing brother, the oldest, nicknamed "Pope," who's been on the lam, we soon realize that, compared to Pope, everyone else here is a piker so far as weird, unsettling behavior is concerned.  As played by Ben Mendelsohn, shown below, left (remember The Year My Voice Broke? 23 years can sure mature a guy!), Pope is one scary dude.  Luke Ford plays the youngest brother Darren, as a passive, seething-below-the-surface blond Adonis (below, right), while Joel Edgerton shown at bottom), lately of The Square, plays the business partner, now happily married, who'd like to see this crazy criminal life come to an end.

Among the coppers, only the ever-reliable Guy Pearce (shown below) stands out, possibly because we know that handsome/
pretty face, and he's also the only one of the men-in-blue on view who is for-certain trustworthy.  All these actors eat up the fine script and spit out terrific performances.  And for well over half of the movie, Michôd keeps things running fast and smart.

Then, at last, coincidences begin to pile up, at the same time as believability starts to falter.  There may be spoliers ahead, so be warned.  But I cannot give examples of the above without perhaps ruining a surprise or two (I'll try not to, in any case): the bracelet a bit too conveniently discovered (and not by the person most likely to do this;)  the car smash-up (how in hell does the smasher, who didn't even know the address of the house in question, suddenly know the car he's never before seen so that he can come out of nowhere for a nifty little surprise crash; how does the key witness (who's in and then out of witness protection -- or what passes for this in Australia) manage to meet again and again in a public place with the very people he's supposed to be helping to prosecute -- with nobody noticing; and finally the finale: As full of rough justice as it may be, it is also utter crap in the do-you-believe-it dept.

You can accept all of the above (there's more; time will not permit), but it means turning off  your antennae that would normally pick up coincidental, fake or simply too far-fetched moments.  You may agree to switch off because the movie is good enough to make you want it to be better.  But Michôd's use of shorthand to reach his finale by piling up events without giving us the details that might make these events more believable is unwise -- except for audiences sitting on (instead of wearing) their "thinking caps."

Animal Kingdom, so very good in so many ways, does leave me looking forward to the filmmaker's next movie. It opens, via Sony Pictures Classics, this Friday, August 13, in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and the Landmark Sunshine Cinema, with a limited nationwide rollout to follow.

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