' ' Cinema Romantico: Animal Kingdom

Monday, January 31, 2011

Animal Kingdom

The first shot in David Michod's Australian crime opus is a stunner.  Josh (James Frecheville), 17 years old, sits on the couch in a small apartment watching a game show. His mother appears to be sleeping on the couch beside him. Then the door opens and the paramedics enter. They inquire as to the situation. Josh detached, almost uninterested, explains his mother has overdosed on heroin. He stands as the paramedics tend to his mother and as they do Josh does a most interesting thing - he briefly turns his attention back to the game show. His mother has od'd and is about to be pronounced dead but for a moment there the TV is just a little more interesting. You could serve up a three-and-a-half hour voiceover describing every detail of Josh's past and not have it say as much as this shot.

So Josh goes to live with his mother's sister Janine (Jackie Weaver), who had an eternal falling out with his mom over a game of cards and lords over a home that is a much more sinister, much less fun-loving version of Jack Horner's home in "Boogie Nights." Her three sons comprise a band of Melbourne bank robbers who are led by the quietly frightening Baz (Joel Edgerton), though the bank robberies are nowhere near the film's point. In fact, the only robbery glimpsed is done in stark black and white, security camera photos over the film's opening credits, accompanied by its understated, creepy, electronic score. Indeed, Michod's focus here is on the mental and the internal as opposed to the more traditional gunfire and chases.

As a protagonist, Josh is less than magnetic, possessing next to no charisma. He is sullen and withdrawn. But then 17 year old male teenagers are rarely magnetic and charismatic. They are often sullen and withdrawn. They are often searching for some sort of direction, particularly if they are dealt a hand in life similar to that of Josh's who now, with nowhere else to turn, is essentially forced into the family business in a short sequence where Baz presses a gun into Josh's hand and encourages him to chase off a few hooligans on the street. One of the film's saddest but most poignant scenes involves Josh's girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright), taking him home and asking her parents if he can stay with them a short while, this most common of living situations coming across like Shangri-la when compared to the aforementioned opening shot. (There is another brief moment involving Nicky in which her mom, played by Susan Prior, explains how difficult it is for her to cope with the fact her daughter is sleeping with her boyfriend that contains an intelligence, a delicateness, and a maturity that the last 500 teenage movies put together you've seen don't possess.)

He winds up staying there because events involving his criminal brothers and their friend, as they must, spiral out of control in ways I will refrain from revealing. Suffice it to say Josh is brought into the fold against his will and a gentle detective, Leckie (Guy Pearce), will keep on Josh to help him with the investigation since he can sense the 17 year old clearly knows more than he lets on while Josh's family, particularly Pope (Ben Mendohlson), an embodiment of the term Loose Cannon, makes veiled and then not so veiled threats to keep his mouth shut.

As the behind the scenes matriarch, Jackie Weaver, recent Best Supporting Actress Oscar Nominee, is earning most of the praise and it's a performance of decided sneakiness in the way she shows us everything with the lightest and most graceful of gestures, like in those unsettling on-the-lips kisses she gives to her sons. What's more, the role, as written, is extravagant in its patience. The expectation is a riff on Angela Lansbury in "The Manchurian Candidate", terrorizing and pulling the strings from offstage. Yet for much of the movie she strikes you as entirely maternal, often seen in the background of shots stirring something or other in a pot on the stove. She isn't completely clueless, she's aware of her sons' and their ally's misdeeds, she enables, but she also seems content to remain on the sidelines and keep out of harm's way. For awhile the viewer may honestly wonder why this turn has generated so much fuss. Ah, patience, viewer, patience, because once she's needed her performance goes hypersonic - figuratively, only figuratively. That's the key. The change is subtle but clear and can be registered through those eyes and through her voice which remains maternal but transforms into maternally menacing. It's really rather amazing to witness. Who's ringmaster of this circus? Jacki Weaver, that's who.

Maybe. Weaver's work deserves the accolades but ultimately "Animal Kingdom" itself belongs to Josh. It takes the film's entire running time to get Josh to where he needs to. The boy has become a man except then you realize that perhaps the film's greatest tragedy is that he never actually got any time to be a boy. 


Derek Armstrong said...

The other performance that's worth highlighting is Mendelsohn, a talented actor who should have been a star except his career was repeatedly stalled by drug abuse. He walks the same tightrope as Weaver between caring and malevolent, which makes the performance almost as interesting as hers. On the one hand, sure, he's results-driven, and will do anything to achieve the desired results. But you also get the feeling he has genuinely avuncular feelings toward his nephew, and under other circumstances would have been a genuinely useful role model in Josh's life. Quite a difficult balance to pull off.

Loved those opening credits, even before the B&W robbery footage. Something about putting the title in front of that three-dimensional lion painting/statue just sent chills down my spine.

Nice review!

david said...

I just put this at the top of my queue.

Andrew K. said...

You sure do know to make me happy. I'm a bit sad that more aren't recognising how good Frecheville is here - and in a debut performance. True, Stapelton's Craig is the best in show for me but the film is an ensemble revolving around J and Frecheville does a fine job. Such a great film, shame it's only being remembered for Weaver. But, at least it's being remembered.

IndianNationalist said...

Hey, do ou know if that 3 dimensional lion painting is an actual work of art of if the filmmakr just created it for the film