22 September 2010

Animal Kingdom

Written & Directed by: David Michôd
Full credits at IMDb

Is Australia the new Romania? That former Soviet-bloc nation became the darling of the festival circuit when its New Wave movement broke through in 2005, after Lazarescu killed at Cannes. But a new decade needs a new cinema movement to get behind, and the hottest national cinema is currently coming from Down Under.

If people are starting to take Australian Cinema seriously, it’s thanks solely to Blue Tongue Films, a collective of filmmaking friends who have been hitting the festivals with shorts for years. Their feature debut, The Square, released earlier this year, was a solid if unremarkable noir, an excellent example of genre that added nothing new. The latest, Animal Kingdom, isn’t too different. Again, the focus is crime and the details, familiar, having been mined from decades of genre film. What sets this movie apart, from not only The Square but its generic forebears, is the sensitivity of its telling.

Newcomer James Frechville stars as the immoveable J, a cusp-of-adulthood 17-year-old thrust, when his mom ODs, into his grandmother’s clan of criminal uncles. “I’m invisible,” he tells one uncle (the underused Joel Edgerton, the hottest Australian actor in America!!) after an automatic bathroom hand dryer fails to activate; it’s a bit on the nose, but the point’s well taken: J serves as the blank slate, the blank face, the audience surrogate who gives us an emotional in to this family of low-laying bank robbers.

The Cody Family are well-known to the local Armed Robbery Squad; the latter kill one of the former to send a message, the former kill two random beat cops in retaliation. Police pressure intensifies, and the increasingly paranoid Codys, Uncle Pope (a weaselly Ben Mendelsohn) in particular, begin to wonder whether they can trust newbie J, who’s being aggressively courted by Detective Leckie, played by Guy Pearce with a smart moustache, making J a kind of adolescent Jim Hawkins, caught between a Long Pope Silver and a Leckie Livesey.

By focusing on a family of quirky, sympathetic criminals, Michod evokes the 90s—Tarantino, specifically, springs to mind during one slo-mo family inventory scored to 70s pop. But what distinguishes the film as of the present is that it’s been stripped of irony. Two uncles have one of those “you know how I know your gay?” conversations, but instead of provoking laughs it sets up a moving emotional confrontation. For one scene, Michod uses Air Supply’s “All Out Of Love,” but he does so sincerely, to undergird an affecting moment. It’s not a joke—it’s impossibly moving.

Michod makes every effort to provoke a sincere emotional connection and response; generally, the musical cues are few and understated, the takes are long. Before every murder—there aren’t that many—Michod focuses on the victim-to-be’s humanity, whether in a private moment of marital bliss or a casual encounter in the locker room. Generally, Animal Kingdom is rife with these kind of small touching details: Jacki Weaver, as the ruthless but underplayed matriarch, gabbing about television hosts; Pearce playing with a Down Syndrome daughter.

Michod’s MO here is subtlety (aside from the one cokeheaded uncle, played by Sullivan Stapleton, who twitches too much); Animal Kingdom is intimate but cool-headed. The sound often cuts out during dramatic climaxes; intense conversations are whispered. Even murder is conducted in murmurs, with minimal exertion. (Half a cc of heroin leaves the victim putting up little struggle.) When J’s stoical mien finally shatters, it’s from the sight of a make-up brush sitting on the edge of a sink. Michod produces such a mood so tense that just the littlest thing can send any character over the edge—whether it’s to tears or to murder. Grade: A-

Watch the trailer:

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