Thursday, September 2, 2010

A brilliant Australian rumble in the jungle

Grandma knows best ... or does she?
If there’s a false note in director David Michod’s riveting Animal Kingdom, I didn’t detect it. This Australian debut movie enters a crime world unlike most others we’ve seen. Working with a terrific cast, Michod penetrates the closed world of one Melbourne family, building a climate of excitement and dread.

Now, we’re not talking a crime family a la the Sopranos. We’re talking about a clan of blood relatives who treat the world – and sometimes one another – as a jungle full of prey. Take the movie's title seriously.

I don’t know if the filmmakers thought about it, but Animal Kingdom might just be the perfect movie for our moment of economic gloom and frantic competition. When the going gets tough, people aren’t always inclined to extend a helping hand, unless it’s to put it into your pocket. I may be reading too much into this narrowly focused, grimly targeted movie, but I see it as a mean movie for a mean time.

The story centers on Josh (James Frecheville), a 17-year-old who moves in with his grandmother after his mother dies of a heroin overdose, expiring while the two are watching a game show on TV. As played by Australian stage actress Jacki Weaver, grandma enters a pantheon of crime mamas that includes Cody Jarrett’s Mom (Margaret Wycherly) in James Cagney’s White Heat. High praise, I know, but Weaver’s Janine Cody is an instant classic.

Sweetly and inappropriately seductive with her three sons – evidently each with a different father – Weaver’s Janine has a smile that masks a deadly disposition. As played by Weaver, nothing about this grandma is clichéd or easy. She’s not out to charm the audience with faux toughness; she’s portraying a character whose affections can turn on a dime without evincing the slightest change in demeanor.

Frecheville plays Josh – known as “J” – without a great deal of expression. That’s the right choice. Josh is navigating his way through a world he knows is dangerous, and he’s never entirely sure how he fits into it or even if he wants to adapt. Like everyone else in the film, he’s also scared to death of his uncle Pope, played with incomparable menace by Ben Mendelsohn.

To his credit, Michod – who also wrote the screenplay – never drifts into caricature or cliché. Pope occasionally makes sincere efforts to reach out to his nephew, but he’s ill equipped to make good on offers to become a sounding board. Besides, no one trusts Pope enough to turn him into a confidant.

Although the plot revolves around revenge, the movie has less to do with gangster exploits than with the struggle for power inside the movie’s well-drawn "animal" kingdom, a domain that includes the Melbourne cops. Guy Pearce plays a detective who offers Josh protection, understanding that the kid has only two choices: He can rely on his uncles or on Pearce’s Detective Leckie. Both choices have advantages and disadvantages, and it’s up to Josh to figure out how best to survive his foray into this jungle of murderous rage, personal weakness and craven self-interest.

Luke Ford and Sullivan Stapleton sign on as Josh’s other two uncles, and Laura Wheelwright portrays Josh’s girlfriend, a young woman ensnared by the cruelties of a world that she’s ill equipped to understand. When Josh visits Laura’s house, we see how far outside the norm his life has moved.

Michod does nothing to glamorize these criminals. He also understands that their world is fraught with fear – of one another and of the society at large. He uses music effectively, and, just as importantly, knows when not to use it. (Notice the scene in which the brothers ambush a squad car as payment for the death of one of their partners in crime. No music spoils the point-blank drama of the moment.)

Animal Kingdom is a dark, unhappy movie that bravely denies us the voyeuristic pleasure that most crime movies offer. We can feel as trapped as Josh by this unseemly band of brothers, and we fear for his fate at their hands.

There are so many good scenes and so much fine acting in Animal Kingdom that you needn’t fret over the occasional line of lost dialogue, the disappearance of words inside the thick Melbourne accents. You can’t miss the gist or the skill with which Michod brings this grim tale to life.

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