Animal Kingdom is a great Australian film about a family of criminals. The film immediately messes with the viewer’s expectations by introducing the criminal family in their home environment. They live in a seemingly normal suburban house and appear to be a close family who even share a family breakfast around a table. The only giveaway that anything is amiss here are the great wads of cash being counted and distributed at the table and the mention of a missing sibling hiding out from the police.
The film’s lead character is J (James Fracheville) who moves in with his Grandma and her sons after his mother dies of a heroin overdose. Although his calm reaction to his mother’s death suggests he has not led an idyllic care free life, he appears naive and innocent around his arm robbing uncles. He knows they are criminals as they have no qualms about talking about their line of business around him, but he shows no interest in joining them in their activities.
Another important character in the film is Barry, one of J’s Uncles. His unexpected death early on comes as a complete shock, as he had looked like he was going to be a lead player in the fim. This creates tension as the audience now know they can no longer trust the judgements they have made prior to this point. The shooting changes the atmosphere of the film, and the nice family setting becomes tense and miserable, as the family cope with their grief and consider revenge and what their next act should be.
The film is full of understated performances. J is a difficult character to make out and doesn’t give anything away. His limited responses to questions and his inability to say “no” to anything he is asked to do imply at first that he might be slightly stupid. However, he has managed to get himself a beautiful smart girlfriend who is clearly taken with him, so this hints that he is not as he appears to be. His quietness and timidness lead the viewer to expect him to act in a certain way and when he doesn’t conform to our expectations, this creates surprise and uncertainty. It also begs the question, will he conform to his family’s expectations or will he surprise them too?
What I found most interesting in the film is that although almost all the characters in the family are criminals, they still don’t strike you as bad people. Armed robberies are their career choice, but aside from that, they appear relatively normal and relatable. The only exception to this is Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), who from the off appears dangerous and unhinged. When Pope is in the room, the atmosphere is tense and uncomfortable as nobody knows he is going to act; when he is not around, the family seem relatively calm and at ease. Since Pope is the eldest of the men in the family, he is the one in charge of making the big decisions, and the rest either follow his lead or incur his wrath.
The most disturbing figure in the film is Grandma Cody. Although she is a doting mother and does not participate in the armed robberies herself, she is clearly the gel that holds the family together and it is implied in her behaviour and her full acceptance of their criminal lifestyle, that she may be the driving force behind the family’s life of crime. Her sons come to her for guidance and approval and she overloads them with affection and advises them what to do. When a family member acts against her advice though and put the rest of “the pack” in danger, she shows her true colours and reveals the lengths she will go to to keep her family together and out of jail.
Guy Pearce’s cop character gives a good description of the film in one of his speeches as he descibes how an animal kingdom is full of strong and weak characters, with the strong surviving and the weak being defeated. He sees J as being a weak character who can only survive if he gets behind a strong person, in either the shape of the police or his family.
It is clear from the start that this film is not going to have a happy ending as J is torn between two opposing sides, neither of which appeal to him. It is not revealed until the last minute though exactly how this film will end, as the leader of the animal kingdom emerges triumphant after a final bout of bloodshed. Animal Kingdom is fully deserving of the widespread critical acclaim it has received. No doubt if it had been an American movie, it would have received an oscar nod in the best movie category.
Dir: David Michod
Starring: Guy Pearce, Joel Edgerton, James Fracheville, Jacki Weaver
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