Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Animal Kingdom (2010, David Michôd)

Animal Kingdom displays some severe moments of cruelty and some gunshots that we soon learn to dread. How the film opens, however, is not with a bang but with a quiet scene just as chilling as any other. We see 17year old Josh (James Frecheville) sitting on a couch next to his mother who is seemingly asleep, the shot fixates on the teen as he himself fixates on the television set with a placid expression. Paramedics arrive in the room and we soon realise that the mother isn't asleep at all, she's overdosed.

Josh, now alone, must live with his Grandmother and his various uncles. Josh's mum had kept herself and her son away from her mother and that side of the family; through the course of Animal Kingdom we'll see exactly why in this impressive debut from first time writer/director David Michôd.

The film is a mortality tale; a story of two powers wrestling over a young soul, one with the power to save, the other to destroy and corrupt. filling out the cast are Joel Edgerton, Sullivan Stapleton, and Ben Mendelsohn as Josh's criminal uncles, and Guy Pierce as the cop out to save Josh's young life. Mendelsohn is particularly impressive as uncle Andrew, the most dangerous man in the entire picture and a man who is shown to have no limits. He is one of the most fearsome screen presences in quite some time and one which unpleasantly lingers on the mind long after.

Mendelsohn's psychotic uncle isn't the only interesting character here though, with players such as Edgerton and Pierce on board also, it was never going to be a one man show. Guy Pierce proves once again to be an actor incapable of turning in a bad performance, and Edgerton's uncle Barry is instantly likeable and a calming presence in a family that's nothing of the sort. The talent here is beyond impressive but in a film that's shy of two hours and starts out as the journey of a young man's decent into human depravity, Animal Kingdom soon loses sight of what it first set out to accomplish.

Michôd has written some fine characters (Josh's Grandmother is frightfully complex and twisted) and while this deserves praise it must also be noted that he was perhaps a bit precious with the page and for this his picture loses direction in large patches, most notably the final third. The family is a fascinating one and the film takes us on a genuinely fascinating trip into the world of criminal life, of people who live and die by the sword. But as the film hits the halfway mark it's hard to feel rooted in any of these characters as the narrative flips its attention between them to willingly, if we were watching the pilot for a new Australian crime series we'd be forgiving for the knowledge of what more is to come, in the restraints of a feature film however there is zero leeway.

The Josh we're introduced to at the start carries on as such; a placid, almost vacuous space of energy that seems incapable of exerting any passion. He's a tough character to figure out and whether Frecheville's attempts to flesh out Josh and make him an interesting central enigma is a success or a tedious failure will depend entirely on each viewer. Laconic characters are extremely hard to pull off, especially ones operating as focus pieces. Josh has moments where his inner dealings are expressed; his emotional breakdown in a bathroom showing this best.

 It's a shame then that Animal Kingdom doesn't showcase more of these vulnerable moments and stick more closely to the young protagonist. Whether Michôd lost confidence in Josh's strength to carry the picture, or whether he just generally got lost in his brilliantly ensemble is debatable. Whatever the reasons for it, by the end of Animal Kingdom, as Josh's chance for a normal life hangs in the balance between Guy Pierce's saviour and the life of crime waiting to consume him, it can't help but be felt the cost should have felt higher. Not necessarily because we don't care for Josh but because the impending tragedy that's so brilliantly conveyed in the film's first half loses steam as it enters the final act. As the film comes to a close it's hard to decipher quite what the film has to say.

The incredible acting on display certainly does carry the film, but it's the technical aspects of the sound design, the score, and the direction that makes this much more than a generic crime drama. As the body count mounts up, the moments when the characters are confronted with death has the film transcend and transform into an almost existential dance of death like Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973), or more recently (and more Australian) Nick Cave and John Hillcoat's The Proposition (2005).

Despite its pitfalls, Animal Kingdom is a confidently executed debut that announces a new promising director to the world. Whatever David Michôd does next will surely be worth waiting for.

For fans of: Good Will Hunting (1997), American History X (1998), The Proposition (2005)