I figure that since I am in Australia, I better blog about an Australian movie, so here goes. Animal Kingdom, a suburban crime drama film, is up for a Golden Globe nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category. It has won several IF Awards (Australian Inside Film Award) in addition to receiving recognition at the Sundance Film Festival. One of the names you will recognize is Guy Pearce who has acted in several American movies – he plays the detective in this film who is trying to take down the crime family.
Animal Kingdom covers the story of seventeen-year old Josh who is forced to return to his estranged grandmother’s house for a place to live after his mother dies. Having spent the better part of his life shielded by his mother from the criminal elements in their family, Josh is now stuck right in the middle of it. He is thrust into the aptly-named “animal kingdom” of criminals versus cops, lies versus truth, and struggles to find his place in their world. Wanted by the police, the first uncle, Pope, is a sociopath and is the worst of the lot, terrifying in certain moments, especially after his partner Barry is murdered by vigilante police. The second uncle, Craig, is a drug dealer. And the third, Darren, the youngest (and just 2 years older than Josh), is being apprenticed into the armed robbery business by his older brothers. Josh’s grandmother, who appears to be uninvolved in any actual “dirty work” in the beginning, runs the entire family with an iron fist, and her love for her sons is borderline incestuous. It only becomes clear nearing the end just how far she is willing to go for them and how much control she has over everyone. When Barry is murdered in cold blood by police, Pope and Craig retaliate in kind. Therein begins a police manhunt for Pope, and Josh becomes caught in the middle. He wants no part of the lawlessness but the question becomes – can he give up the only family he has to do so? In return for his testimony against Pope, Pope and Darren are jailed. Josh’s grandmother decides to call in a few favors and is quite willing to sacrifice her grandson for her sons’ freedom, especially for Darren, her baby. She doesn’t care too much about Pope who is psychopathic, but she will do anything to save Darren. In an unexpected twist, Josh turns against the police to work with the defense and his uncles are freed. He is welcomed back into his grandmother’s home, but his true motive for switching comes at the film’s close when he shoots Pope in the head. In the end, this climactic, dramatic film is about survival, pure and simple, and epitomizes the battle between the weak and the strong…eat or be eaten.
The film is very realistically portrayed, with the actors up front and center, leading up to some very tense moments throughout. A compactly-constructed story, Animal Kingdom takes place in Melbourne, Australia in the 1980’s. Most of the tension comes from the dynamic and charged relationship between all the characters, including the major and peripheral ones, instead of any all-out actual action sequences which I think is a testament to the director’s skill. There is no gratuitous sex or heavy violence taking away from the focus on its multi-layered and dangerous personalities. Instead, the film’s darkness and danger come from the characters themselves, especially Pope whose psychotic nature is particularly horrifying when he calmly strangles Josh’s girlfriend to tie up a loose end, and the grandmother whose matter-of-fact coldness to eliminate her own grandson is just as gruesome in its own way.
Because the story is mostly told from Josh’s perspective, you really get drawn into the world as well as into his own fears on who to trust, and his struggles to determine right from wrong. His shyness makes him a great foil for the other more edgy, nasty characters, and you end up taking the journey through his own nerve-wracking experience of it. The end is bittersweet because Josh loses some of his innocence and is forced to become part of that world, and even though it’s by his own choice, it’s both sad and triumphant.
Animal Kingdom is an emotionally-fraught film that will leave you tied in knots, and although it does start slowly, I think that that build-up just adds to the intensity in the end. Very well-scripted and well-acted. Disturbing and raw, I would rate Animal Kingdom three and a half out of five stars.