A surprisingly understated gem, Australia's "Animal Kingdom" is more adept at showcasing the psychological dissolution of a crime family than being a gung-ho action picture. In his choices, writer/director David Michod has produced a unique film that combines elements of a character study within the structure of a domestic drama. Placing that domestic drama inside a criminal family in flux, in decline and in desperation provides a slow build urgency to the film that causes the suspense to rise exponentially as the film proceeds. Effectively employing a moral ambiguity to his central protagonist, Michod creates a complex family unit that alternately protects its own or, if need be, devours the weakest. I loved the quiet intensity throughout and appreciated the thoughtful characterizations that made the "Animal Kingdom" an effective study of humans pushed to the edge.
The film is centered around James Frecheville, a rather passive seventeen year old that comes to live with his grandmother (Jackie Weaver) when his mother overdoses. Unbeknownst to him, his mother has shielded him from a family that lives outside the limits of the law. Frecheville, however, seems content to play a marginal role within the family enterprise as it garners him acceptance and connectivity. As the police, led by Guy Pearce, start to close in on the various members of the group--a splinter starts to form that will eventually rend everyone apart. The further the film progresses, the larger the body count until everyone left is scrambling in desperation mode for survival. The film is exceedingly well acted. Weaver is cool and cheerful even at her most treacherous. Sullivan Stapleton is terrifically unhinged as Uncle Craig, Joel Edgerton is astutely level headed as Uncle Barry, and Luke Ford is surprisingly sympathetic as the over-his-head Uncle Darren. But aside from Weaver's subversive villainy, it's a manic Ben Mendelsohn that provides real menace throughout "Animal Kingdom."
If anything keeps the film from being perfect, for me, it's the naive and passive Frecheville. He never elicited much sympathy or empathy and pairing him with a girlfriend who was equally foolish didn't help matters. In many ways, you know the young couple is doomed--but it merely seems like they brought it upon themselves with their patent refusal to acknowledge what is going on before their eyes. Still, "Animal Kingdom" packs a powerfully hard edge. The film is thoroughly entertaining and works as an intellectual thriller, not as a shoot-em-up. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of well placed violence in "Animal Kingdom"-- the film, however, revels in the choices that people must make in extreme circumstances. And, in the end, it's all about survival instinct. I really loved this movie. About 4 1/2 stars--I'll round up for the distinct and effective characterizations (although I'm tempted to round down for the idiot girlfriend!). KGHarris, 1/11.