Thursday, February 3, 2011

Watch Your Step in "Animal Kingdom"

There are many films about young men who become criminals or delinquents thanks to the bad influence of unscrupulous relatives, but I don't think there have been any quite like "Animal Kingdom," an Australian crime film about a tight-knit family of career criminals. Our teenage hero is Joshua Cody, nicknamed J (James Frecheville), who moves in with his grandmother, Janine (Jacki Weaver), after his mother does of an overdose. J is quiet and keeps to himself, showing no interest in the dealings of his uncles, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), Darren (Luke Ford), and Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), and their pal Baz (Joel Edgerton). Instead, he prefers spending his time with his girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright), and does his best to distance himself from his home life. However, all Cody brothers either live with Janine or are at the house constantly, making it difficult for J to avoid being present at the wrong times. Eventually a job goes wrong and the police start to take an interest, led by Officer Leckie (Guy Pearce). Suddenly J may know too much, and his loyalties are called into question.

A key element that makes "Animal Kingdom" distinctive from so many other similar crime stories is its suburban setting. The Cody brothers are not ghetto dwellers or suit-wearing sophisticates. They plan their jobs in living rooms and bedrooms, often with their mother or their girlfriends in close proximity. This does not mean that their crimes are more innocuous. The film depicts several acts of violence, heightened by the fact that they take place in backyards or familiar neighborhood streets. The most intense and upsetting one plays out on Janine's living room couch. Likewise, the characters behave like normal, everyday people. All the various relationships within a criminal hierarchy we usually see in mobster films like "The Godfather," are condensed into the simplest family dynamics. How the Cody brothers relate to each other, and how their mother figures into their operation is vital to understanding their actions and motivations.

I wish I'd seen the film before knowing that Jacki Weaver's performance was getting accolades left and right, including a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. She maintains a wonderful, warm presence as a loving mother and grandmother for so much of the film, with all these little domestic mannerisms that totally put the viewer off guard. And then her dark side emerges, without warning, and it's absolutely terrifying. Her performance is only one of several excellent ones in the film. Ben Mendelsohn as Pope, the most dangerous and unstable of the brothers, manages to be a real menace and a pathetic figure at the same time. And then there's James Frecheville, who will be one to watch in the future. He keeps J such a stoic presence, but not so much that you can't sense the conflicted emotions and adolescent frustrations below the surface.

In the wrong hands, this story could have been maudlin or overly bleak, but there's a good balance to "Animal Kingdom," particularly in the way that it uses J as an observer. His dialogue is sparse in the early going, and his relatives have such big personalities that the audience may forget, as the Codys sometimes do, that J is there with them in the scene. There are some instances where he provides narration of his inner thoughts, but these are brief and mostly disappear after the initial introductions to the characters. This means that while J is certainly the protagonist and always has our sympathies, the audience isn't privy to what he's thinking most of the time, and his actions can be unpredictable. The POV will also switch among the various members of the family, giving us different, revealing views of each character. Some of J's most interesting character development happens when he isn't onscreen, through his uncles or Janine by proxy.

The film's weakness, perhaps, is that the narrative ends up a little scattered, and some of the characters get lost in the shuffle. I got tripped up by the Australian accents here and there, but I was left far more disoriented by abrupt cuts and some rushed events. Nicky's family appears a few times and would seem to be important to later events in the film, but they curiously disappear. I liked the ending scenes, but the sequence immediately leading up to it feels slightly incomplete, like several important details were forgotten or left out. Too little exposition is always better than too much, but this was one of those cases where we could have used a little more.

But these are small complaints about one of the better coming-of-age crime stories I've seen in a while. Jacki Weaver's got my vote on Oscar night, and I'm glad her nomination means more people will be seeking out this film.

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