Animal Kingdom: Review

20 June 2010

Written by: Jean Kemshal-Bell

Writer/director David Michod’s feature film debut Animal Kingdom is creating a buzz and a hoopla that so rarely hits the Australian film industry.

Coming out of the Sundance Film Festival with the Grand Jury Prize for ‘Best World Dramatic Film’, Animal Kingdom has been receiving great word of mouth for months. Now that it is finally out in the cinemas, the word is only spreading further.

Loosely based on Melbourne’s Walsh Street Murders in the late 1980s, Animal Kingdom centres on the Cody crime family. When 17-year-old Joshua ‘J’‘s (James Frecheville) mother dies of a heroin overdose his grandmother Janine ‘Smurf’ (Jacki Weaver) comes to the teenagers aid, bringing ‘J’ into the Cody household alongside his three notorious criminal uncles. Add a dozen deaths and a few interrogation scenes into the picture and you’ve got a gripping film.

Anticipated to restore faith in the Australian film industry, Animal Kingdom is indeed carrying a lot of weight on its shoulders that goes beyond being just another Aussie film.

With the popularity of local and international crime series, ranging from Underbelly, Bones, CSI and NCIS, Animal Kingdom is not another crime piece hot off the heels of our affection for the underworld. What is different about Michod’s film is its highly developed story and multifaceted characters.

Michod’s brilliant script brings intensely layered and emotionally driven performances. Perhaps the most complex and idiosyncratic performances are given by James Frecheville and Jacki Weaver. It is with great choice and skill in which Janine thrives as a typical crime matriarch. Whether she is creepily kissing her sons on the mouth for just a little too long or apathetically acknowledging her daughter’s death, there is always something sinister coming out of this woman.

Newcomer Frecheville delivers such an accomplished performance for his first major film. His inexperience is perfectly placed in the character ‘J’. Frecheville’s approach to ‘J’ as a monotone, silenced, scared and naïve young man create an authentic person. His lack of emotions (sans one pivotal emotional scene) shows such smart decisions in not only his ability, but behind Michod’s direction.

Animal Kingdom features a dazzling Australian cast including the aforementioned newcomer Frecheville and  Weaver, AFI award winners Luke Ford (The Black Balloon) and Joel Edgerton (The Square), Sullivan Stapleton, Guy Pearce and Ben Mendelsohn in a terrifying performance. Do not miss this film!

Animal Kingdom is in limited release in Australia now. It is playing at the Los Angeles Film Festival and opens in America on August 13.

James Madden is a graduating Bachelor of Arts student, who majored in cinema and media studies at La Trobe University. He contributes to The Vine, and is a co founder of Film Blerg, where this review was originally published.