Lost In the Crevices – Brett’s Overlooked Film of the Week: “Animal Kingdom” (2010)
An Australian Crime Drama of Bone-Chilling Malevolence
If you follow my weekly “Overlooked Movie” series, you may have noticed a thematic constant that’s been inadvertently underpinning my content as of late. For reasons I’m not fully aware of, I’m fascinated by great films that portray characters consumed by overly-demanding circumstances.
In “White Material,” Madame Vial is blinded by ambition–so much so, in fact, she places her family directly in the path of imminent danger. With “Rust and Bone,” director Jacques Audiard documents two people forced to rebuild their lives from the ground up, while the nomadic assassin in “The American” remains a possession-less anonymity fighting for survival.
This week, I take a look at an Australian film that harbors a character who finds himself in an equally problematic struggle, much like the characters in the movies I’ve written about in week’s past. It also happens to be one of the best films to come out of 2010.
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How rare it must be for a director’s first full-length feature to resemble that of an experienced, veteran filmmaker. In 2010, Australian director David Michod did as much with “Animal Kingdom”—a haunting pseudo-masterpiece of mood, suspense and unrivaled brutality that sits firmly atop the list of the best Australian films ever made.
“Animal Kingdom” tells the story of the Cody’s—a family so ruthless and subtly brutal it borders on complete and total incomprehension. Their particular brand of evil seems eerily passive; it’s almost as if they’re molded from the most quietly ferocious form of psychopathy imaginable, even for criminals who kill mercilessly on a nearly-constant basis. The Cody’s are a crime family tucked not-so-firmly into a neighborhood that straddles Melbourne’s middle and lower class: none of them quite fit in with the latter, yet they’re always attempting to conform to the ebb and flow of the former.
The family’s figurehead is Andrew ‘Pope’ Cody (Ben Mendelsohn), whose tendencies remind me of those harbored by Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men.” Pope doesn’t send himself on a killing spree with a captive bolt pistol, but his barbarous mindset is just as manifest. Then there’s the enigmatic and equally psychotic Janine (Jacki Weaver): the fearsome face of the family. She’s the brains of the operation, and Pope carries out the dirty work.
Enter Joshua Cody. He’s the nephew of Pope—a directionless, impressionable teenager who finds himself at the doorstep of the househould of the volatile Cody family. His mother has just overdosed on drugs, and there’s nowhere else for him to go. The remainder of “Animal Kingdom” pivots around this act–in head-spinning overdrive–as Joshua finds himself at the mercy of a rigmarole of tumultuous, life-altering forces.
With the introduction of Joshua into the film, the movie shifts its focus to something more insightful than the daily lives of the criminals it portrays. Merciless acts of violence begin to transpire, as they typically do in crime movies, but these specific acts harbor deeper implications: they’re leaving an unmistakable mark on the psyche of an impressionable young mind. The family soon becomes embroiled in senseless acts of police brutality. To have the feds tailing you is one thing. To have them commit random acts of violence against you is something entirely, unspeakably different.
An unending string of murders unfold, leaving Joshua whom (at this point, has fallen under the protective eye of his questionable family members), finds himself shoulders deep in a reality far ahead of his teenage years. An up and coming detective (played by Guy Pearce) soon seeks out the boy for an enticing offer: if he’s able to provide law enforcement with details pertaining to the Codys whereabouts, he’ll receive full protection under the guise of the law.
How much weight does such an offer realistically carry? The Cody family is relentless in its efforts to eliminate every necessary roadblock that stands between them and the effortless ability to thrive. And, why would Joshua’s familial ties stop them? How is it that a boy so young is able to handle such an unexpectedly tumultuous reality? Perhaps we’re watching the transformation of a boy into a man. Or, are we watching the transformation of a harmless teenager into a psychologically unstable killer?
Michod—a first time feature-length director—harbors an innate talent that’s highlighted by the films’ absorbing insight. Like his American family crime film contemporary, Martin Scorsese, his approach is both perceptive and relentless, and, like most of Scorsese’s criminal characters, “Animal Kingdom’s” family of small-time gangbangers is deplorable, self-indulgent, and remorseless in its carrying out of all things loathsome.
Michod makes no bones about this correlation, either. At several points, he uses an appropriately topical soundtrack set to a slow motion tracking shot, much like Charlie’s saunter across the bar in one of the opening sequences of “Mean Streets.” That being said, there’s a particular song I have in mind. Let’s just say, for all intents and purposes, you may find yourself nauseous at the sound of Air Supply’s “I’m All Out of Love” from here on out.
Another one of “Animal Kingdom’s” strengths is its ability to build a deliberate suspense that keeps us enveloped in its perpetual motion. It’s confident and complete, much like Scorsese‘s work was just before his career skyrocketed.
Consider the last lines spoken in the film–by Pope, nonetheless: “It’s a crazy fucking world.”
What a fitting conclusion to the reality that “Animal Kingdom” portrays.
If this is Michod’s debut, I can only imagine what he’ll be churning out two decades down the road.