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Classic Film Review: Animal Kingdom (2010)

By Bill Boyle

One of the best crime pictures of the new millennium, David Michôd's Animal Kingdom is a quiet lash of brutal realism. When it was released in 2010, all the talk was about Jacki Weaver's turn as Janine “Smurf” Cody. Rightfully so. Weaver is aces as Grandma Smurf—gently terrifying, sinister in her loving naivety. But her Oscar-nominated performance isn't the only thing that makes this a modern classic. In a year when The King's Speech beat out top-shelfers like True Grit and Winter's Bone and The Fighter for Best Picture, Animal Kingdom was all but forgotten except for Weaver's performance. It's okay. In twenty-five years, The King's Speech—like Dances With Wolves and Forrest Gump—will be remembered as a lump of babyshit on the dashboard of an ugly car, and Animal Kingdom will be classed up there with the great crime pictures of the era. Stylistically, it's very similar to '70s slow-burners like The Friends of Eddie Coyle: haunting, dark, and uncompromising in its vision of crime and consequences.

James Frecheville as J.
What's most amazing is that it's Michôd's first picture. It's got to be one of the most assured debuts this side of Bottle Rocket and Reservoir Dogs. Okay, you know what? I'm gonna stop saying shit like that. And I'm not gonna swipe your feet with plot summary. I'm drunk. I just got back from the bar. It's past midnight. I'm not gonna say the things you're supposed to say in a review. I'm not gonna say this is spectacular and that's beautifully shot and this is genius and that's fucking remarkable. I'm not gonna talk about the Aussie New Wave or whatever the fuck it's called. I'm not gonna make comparisons. I'm just gonna say a bunch of shit I love about this picture.

In the opening sequence. J (James Frecheville) is sitting next to his OD'd mother on the couch. He finds out she's dead and he calls his grandmother and says he's not sure what to do. Frecheville, lanky, his voice monotone, is excellent here and throughout the picture—he's frighteningly real, a man-looking boy who has tumbled headlong into a new, violent reality. Animal Kingdom has been called an Australian Goodfellas, but J is no Henry Hill. He's wary of Grandma Smurf and his uncles, the criminals his mother kept him from, but they're all he has. Frecheville plays it perfectly—he's too big to be a kid, but not old enough to be strong for himself.       
Jacki Weaver as Grandma Smurf and Joel Edgerton as Baz.
The way the backstory is etched in works so well, too. Take the credits: we never see J's uncles in robbery mode in the picture proper, but the stills that play during the credits show them masked, guns leveled on innocents, faces full of dark terror. We know suddenly what J is in for. It's a haunting sequence and, like so much of what happens in the picture, the real power lies under the surface. Jacki Weaver's Grandma Smurf is drawn in much the same way: We see her kissing her sons, pulling them in for long hugs, protecting them and weeping for them, and so much of her nastiness just glints through behind her wide eyes. When she orders a hit on J at the end, it's the first we see of the real devil in her. And, goddamn, what a wonderful devil it is. Smurf is the film's greatest magic in a lot of ways. The sad terribleness of the criminal experience is filtered through her fuck-it attitude.

Guy Pearce as Leckie with J.
Guy Pearce, in a great turn as Detective Senior Sergeant Nathan Leckie, tells J about the way creatures in the the bush survive: “Everything sits in the order somewhere,” he says. “They survive because they're strong and they reach an understanding.” It's the picture's one attempt to weigh down the story with significance, and it fucking works. Leckie's speech is all survival of the fittest, but J's hearing it for the first time and it's perfect. The dark turn J takes after this—betraying Leckie and Grandma Smurf—speaks of his willingness to hang on however he can.

I've only really mentioned J and Smurf and Leckie here, but the uncles, goddamn, the uncles deserve a word. Ben Mendelsohn plays Pope, the worst psycho of them all, with a savage blaze. His expressive face twists the screen and burns itself hard into your memory. Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is a pulse of nerves, a weird jumble of stupidity and rage. And Darren (Luke Ford) is the dumb-ass follower. And then there's Joel Edgerton, as Barry “Baz” Brown, Pope's best friend and partner in crime. He's the opposite of Mendelsohn's Pope: kind, generous, a good guy in a bad game. These are the characters who circle J, who populate the tough world that's he's stumbled into because of his mother's royal fuck-up.

Ben Mendelsohn as Pope,
Jacki Weaver as Grandma Smurf,
and Luke Ford as Darren. 
Horrible things happen to everyone in Animal Kingdom. No heroes populate the Melbourne of this picture. Baz, who treats J like a son, gets gunned down early by coppers. J gets dragged into the nonsense when his uncles strike back, stealing a car and getting fingered when two random uniforms get murdered on the streets. Worst of all, his loyalty is questioned. He's seen as weak. He's expected to fold. Pope takes out J's girlfriend in an attempt to silence her, not knowing what J's capable of. We understand that we are most likely witnessing the making of a new kind of monster. There's no great lesson about consequences or the great web of human responsibility. The picture would never moralize like that. Only one lesson's important: Survive, motherfucker. And that's what J—who has been thrown into this, who has been shocked into recognition by glorious violence—learns to do. By any means necessary. 

The picture has its silences—it's tender in its approach to the mundane aspects of life on the edge, in how it perceives the ordinary routines of violent criminals. The score is intense and there are several slo-mo scenes that amp up the tension. For the most part, though, it's anchored by stunning performances and by Michôd's killer script and careful direction. It never feels rushed or fake or lacking anything. It never feels too easy. It's a violent tremble on the lips of sinners. It's a prayer of desperation. It's a hunger you have when you're dying and all the ghosts are wailing for you.

Bill Boyle lives in Oxford, MS. His writing has appeared in Salon, L.A. Review of Books, Out of the Gutter, Chiron Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Plots With Guns, Thuglit, Battling Boxing Stories, and other magazines and journals. He writes about '70s crime films at Goodbye Like A Bullet.