Thursday 24 February 2011

Animal Kingdom review (The List, Issue 677)

This dark Australian crime thriller has had critics lining up to heap praises upon it since its prize-winning debut at Sundance last January, and it arrives on these shores fresh from a deserved Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category for Jacki Weaver. These endorsements should hopefully provoke discerning cinemagoers to look past the film’s lack of big-name actors and its rather misleading title (it’s not a nature documentary) and give it a shot. Those who do are in for a treat – if a rather grim one – because the film is a riveting drama that announces the arrival of a distinct filmmaking talent in debut writer-director David Michôd.

In the film’s opening moments teenager J (James Frecheville) discovers his mother dead from a drug overdose, then gets in touch with his estranged grandmother (Weaver) who insists that J comes to live with her. Michôd’s brutally unsentimental presentation of these events sets the film’s tone very effectively; clearly indicating that the world we are entering is one where self-preservation is everything. J initially falls in with his three uncles, all of whom are involved to varying degrees in lives of violent crime, but a local police officer (Guy Pearce) becomes aware of J’s situation, and urges him to escape his family’s criminal ways.

Michôd takes his time setting up the story’s various characters, elaborately laying the foundations in the earlier stages for some powerfully effective pay-offs once the plot’s momentum kicks in. He refuses to handhold the audience at any point, building up characters then killing them off without warning, creating an ever-present sense of danger. His casting is also spot-on; as well as featuring two knock-out performances from Frecheville and Weaver – his subtly shifting, hers fearlessly cold – the cast is a virtual who’s who of Australian character actors (Joel Edgerton, Ben Mendelsohn, Dan Wyllie), all on top form. It adds up to a potent Shakespearean brew that dramatises humanity’s kill-or-be-killed instinct with chilling conviction.

Animal Kingdom is released on 25 February. This review first published in The List magazine.

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