An orphaned teen gets caught up in his crime family’s business in Animal Kingdom
The Academy Awards are on the telly Sunday, Feb. 27, and the way the pundits and bookies tell it, you already know what will happen. Colin Firth won’t likely stutter through his Best Actor acceptance remarks for The King’s Speech, which will probably also be named Best Picture. (The Social Network’s David Fincher may get a deserved Best Director consolation prize, however.) Annette Bening will probably get her long-awaited Best Actress award for The Kids Are All Right, unless a pregnant Natalie Portman swoops in for her Black Swan psycho diva, while The Fighter’s Melissa Leo and Christian Bale seem poised to earn Supporting Actor awards for The Fighter.
Every year there is usually an out-of-theblue long shot amid the thespian races, the one performer who is perfectly happy being nominated and doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning, let alone even fretting about going to the podium. This year’s dark horse is Jacki Weaver for her searing performance in the otherwise unheralded Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom (Sony Classics; 113 minutes; R; widescreen; 2010), which didn’t get much art-house love stateside but is worth a run-through via Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s new DVD release. Weaver’s not in the movie for its entire running time, but every second of her on-screen appearances counts mightily, especially during the opening reel and in the film’s final half-hour.
Writer-director David Michod’s confident feature debut begins with 17-year-old son Joshua “J” Cody (newcomer James Frecheville) watching a TV game show on the couch with his mum--only she’s dead from a drug overdose, as the arriving paramedics quickly determine. Suddenly orphaned, J has little choice but to call his grandmother Janine (Weaver), nicknamed Grandma Smurf, for help, even though J’s mom was actually scared of the Cody clan. Turns out mother knew best: Janine is the matriarch to a trio of lowlife criminal sons, who are in cahoots with bad apples of the Melbourne police force’s armed robbery division.
J’s uncles offer various degrees of villainy, such as baby-faced Darren (Luke Ford), only a few years older than J and still emotionally unequipped to handle the coldblooded aspects of the family business, and hyperactive cokeaddict Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), who continually gets high on his own supply. Uncle Andrew “Pope” Cody (Ben Mendelsohn) is far and away the most nutzo of the bunch, and he can’t cope when his best bad buddy Barry “Baz” Brown (Joel Edgerton) suggests that the dicey alliance with the dirty coppers isn’t worth the trouble. Baz even states that playing the stock market is an easier risk. When a key character is surprisingly killed during the film’s early going, Pope goes old-school and orchestrates a brutal retaliation, along the way implicating a still-clueless J, and arousing the suspicions of police detective Nathan Leckie (L.A. Confidential’s Guy Pearce).
Animal Kingdom might have done better box office at the U.S. art houses if moviegoers knew what Australian audiences were already quite familiar with. Michod loosely shaped his work from events surrounding the Walsh Street police shootings of October 1988, when two 20-ish constables were gunned down in South Yarra, Australia, as well as the mid-1980s Down Under underworld of the Pettingill crime family, run by a matriarch nicknamed Granny Evil.
This is why actress Weaver’s lauded performance as Janine functions as such an amoral anchor to the proceedings. She’ a blond, squatty, seemingly ebullient force of maternal nature (think Sally Struthers with a vegemite sandwich) who quickly throws things offkilter whenever she utters the phrase “Give us a kiss” as she passionately smooches her adult offspring on their lips. The kissing angle has its share of crime-movie history, notably Michael Corleone’s fatal liplock with Fredo in The Godfather Part II. Yet Weaver’s bantam grandmommie dearest recalls other cinematic antecedents, such as Shelley Winters in Bloody Mama (1970) and Margaret Wycherly’s mobster mom to James Cagney as Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949). (Michod’s use of Cody as the family surname seems deliberate here.)
Michod’s movie doesn’t embark on the expected paths, with little in the way of scenes featuring kinetic firepower; even a central courtroom trial is never shown. Instead, Michod takes it slow and steady to chart J’s eventual loss of innocence within this cauldron of trigger-happy crazies. Young actor Frecheville has that Josh Hartnett sense of impassivity, which would be deadly in other genre pictures, but certainly not here. Frecheville’s J is on the sidelines looking in, as he silently absorbs the quirky behavioral patterns of his uncles (although the loose cannon Pope, played with a sinister relish by Mendelsohn, is the easiest to figure out), then tries to find his own way to escape.
Michod always adheres to the gangster genre template, however, thus ensuring that J can never get out of the racket. And while certain scenes telegraph this unavoidable fact, notably the events that befall J’s girlfriend Nicole (Laura Wheelwright), Michod plays these moments for maximum effect. There’s a terrific bit when J desperately tries to call Nicole—then hears her cell phone ringing in his own back yard.
This paves the way for more bravura work by Weaver in the final stretch, as Janine becomes increasingly distressed by the turnabouts (“I’m having trouble trying to find my positive spin!”) and then chillingly attempts to restore her own bizarre sense of family unity. It all culminates in a just-right finale that plays like an unholy combination of The Godfather and The Lion King, as Michod shrewdly accentuates Animal Kingdom’s central theme of survival within the gangland species.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s DVD is letterboxed at 2.35:1 ratio and features a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack that emphasizes the attributes of music composer Antony Partos’ sonic contributions. Note the ways that Partos’ stereophonic synthesizer work adds a neat touch of menace to, of all things, an old Air Supply pop song. The English subtitles option is available for those who have difficulty understanding the actors’ occasionally thick Aussie dialect and slangy idiom.
Michod’s commentary track, which also has a subtitles option, includes tidbits such as his statement that he wanted to make a movie about armed robbers without showing any armed robberies. Confused preview audiences, however, meant that Michod had to fix the problem by resorting to an opening credits sequence studded with black-and-white stills that are supposed to represent J’s uncles dressed in masks and wielding guns during their many burglaries.
Also on the packed disc: a 15-minute “making of” backgrounder; a 33-minute question-answer session with Michod, producer Liz Watts and actors Weaver, Frecheville and Stapleton during the movie’s premiere at the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival; and a two-minute trailer.
Cops and robbers Down Under: Ben Mendelsohn and Joel Edgerton (left photo) and James Frecheville and Guy Pearce (right) in Animal Kingdom.