On DVD: ‘Animal Kingdom’
Law of the Jungle
Australia’s new entry in the crime genre isn’t given to the bells and whistles of its American cousins. There aren’t slick montages backed by 70s rock music, nor are there colorful bad guys in three-piece suits spouting unnaturally clever dialogue. Here is a crime drama firmly grounded in the banal milieu of everyday life, which makes it all the more shocking when hideous violence punctuates the quiet suburban space.
The story is of a teenager taken into a family of bankrobbers after his mother dies of a drug overdose. His uncles and his grandmother are lying low when he enters their tranquil Melbourne neighborhood, which is a good idea considering the police’s robbery division is likely to shoot and plant evidence later once they have the scent of their prey. It all makes for an oppressively hostile environment for the young man, a hulking and decidedly uncharismatic character (though the plays to the realism) who tries to ingratiate himself to his criminal relatives while maintaining some semblance of a normal teen life. It also makes for a hostile environment onscreen, where deception, betrayal, and sudden death lurk in the most unassuming locales, from a peaceful middle-class suburban street to a grocery store parking lot. The film’s title is certainly apt. This is a world where desperate creatures struggle to assert their place in the proverbial food-chain, equipped with varying degrees of empathy but ultimately reliant upon brutal instincts of self-preservation.
The boy is in quite a quandry, fenced in from all sides by parties who demand his loyalty and assistance yet offer nothing in return. The cops are murderous and dirty, except for a humane detective expertly played by a nuanced Guy Peirce, but even he can’t provide the boy with adequate protection. The uncles are all pretty bad dudes to varying degrees, especially a sociopathic monster named Pope played by the superb and superbly creepy Ben Mendelson. But perhaps the most shocking of the ensemble is the grandmother, brought to unnerving life in an Oscar-nominated performance by Jackie Weaver. She’s cold pragmatism with a smile on its face, a matriarch who has love to give but only to a very limited few (there are subtle suggestions of incestuous emotions between her and her grown sons). Her character owns the screen whenever she appears, even amongst the skilled and ultra-masculine Australian male cast.
The film is an actor’s showcase, but that shouldn’t overshadow the sublime work done by first-time director David Michod, who has the good sense to let his tense scenario sit on the slow-burner and who gives his cast plenty of room to work. He constructs some terrific shots and makes numerous inspired decisions while avoiding the bad ones that often put dents in noble debut features. It’s a first-class effort, breathing naturalism and a sense of tragedy into a genre that all too often gets lost in artificial excess.