It is incredibly rare that a director of sheer quality is able to hone his or her talents expertly enough to achieve the unimaginable and produce a masterpiece upon debut. Few have managed it but those who have are now among Hollywood’s studio elite as a result. Bryan Singer with The Usual Suspects, Quentin Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs, the Coen Brothers with Blood Simple and now the extremely exciting David Michôd with his astonishing feature debut Animal Kingdom.
Exposing us to a snapshot of life among the underworld existence of Australian crime family, the Codys, Animal Kingdom documents the panicked and dangerous deconstruction of the tribe from within. Our vessel on this journey is estranged cousin “J” (James Frenchville), who’s reunion with the family has come at the cost of his mother’s life thanks to a careless heroin overdose. Mollycoddled in by his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver) Jay is exposed to a life of familial crime under severe duress as bent cops look to finish the armed robbing Cody brothers by means of murder rather than justice. Displaced and afraid, J is forced into increasingly rancid and perilous situations by unhinged lynchpin “Pope” (Ben Mendholson) after the gang’s voice of reason, long-time friend and partner in crime “Baz” (Joel Edgerton) is tactically slaughtered by the police.
As hysteria slowly takes hold, J’s resolve under pressure is tested to its limits as Pope asserts a demented and murderous form of control over the family. With everything at threat, his oblivious girlfriend included, J is offered an exit route by straight cop, Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce), who can provide protection in exchange for evidence and confession. To say anymore with regards to the plot would be churlish as films as exceptional as this must be seen, not explained.
An absolute masterclass in no-frills filmmaking.
What can be said, however, is that a large proportion of the plot’s considerable strength lies firmly in its determination to buck expectation at every turn, keeping things taught and exciting throughout. It is also an absolute masterclass in no-frills filmmaking, proving simultaneously that you don’t need special effects, car chases and a monster budget to build tension, compel an audience and provide the sort of stimulus that has become mistakenly associated with studio pictures alone. In fact, very rarely will you see a film as overtly threatening and violent as this, which contains so little actual violence.
Granted, there are brutal moments but they are fleeting and shockingly abrupt, denoting great power and an overriding sense of terrifying realism. Of course, Michôd’s superbly refined direction and bluntly spartan screenplay play a large part in creating this claustrophobic and unavoidably tense environment but a praise must also be heaped on the actors. James Frenchville gives an admirable debut performance as the taciturn, detached and uncomfortable J, while Guy Pearce is as brilliant as ever as the inwardly seething Detective Leckie. However, it is Ben Mendolsohn and Jackie Weaver who make this film the compelling and utterly immersive beast that it is. Both are simply mesmerising in their respective rolls, with Mendolsohn channeling Pope’s deranged outlook with a rancid and deeply unsettling sadistic calm while Weaver lords over her flock with such an assured sense of immoral certitude that her sickeningly, over loving, motherly manner undoubtedly makes her one of the most disturbing mothers ever to grace the screen.
All the above factors combined, Animal Kingdom delivers an utterly gripping, raw and exceptionally powerful debut film from a truly promising young director. As the unpredictable weather heats up and you begin to find yourself liberally tossing shrimps on the barby at every rain free opportunity, just take a moment to remember the name David Michôd because you will undoubtedly be hearing it again very, very soon.