Sundance 2010 Review: ANIMAL KINGDOM

James Wallace

by: James Wallace
January 29th, 2010

Rating: 8.5/10
Writer/Director: David Michôd
Cast:Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, James Frecheville

ANIMAL KINGDOM tells the tale of the Cody Family, a ragtag group of criminals in Melbourne, Australia. After seventeen-year-old Josh (James Frecheville) loses his mother to a heroine overdose, he is forced to live with the Codys, who quickly welcome them into their sordid underground of murder and bank robbery. But the family is coming apart at the seams, unraveling as family member after family member is assassinated by the local police.

In steps mustachioed Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce), who thinks he can save the boy from an ill-fated life of crime. But Josh’s remaining family members, specifically his slimy Uncle Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) and the manipulative mother and don of the family so-to-speak (Jacki Weaver), aren’t ready to let go of their pawn in this chess game filled with deceit, drugs and cold-blooded killing.

What works so well in ANIMAL KINGDOM is its choice to focus on the family dramatics in this well-scripted and well-arranged gritty crime film. The criminal world is merely a framework for the over-all theme and question of “Does family always really come first…even in the most extreme of circumstances?”

Writer/director David Michôd successfully knows how to build the tension within this framework, keeping you at your heightened nerves as the film slowly unfolds leading to its sudden and bloody peak. You're on the edge for every moment as the film's score of building synth leads to what could be another shooting in the next (and a loud one at that, as the sound design in the film is fittingly turned up to 11).

The film’s performances are all so rich but the true despicable character that sticks out is Weaver, who plays the devious mother so well that you absolutely cringe at her Machiavellian methods of keeping the family together. They say that behind every good man is a good woman. In this case, behind the evil men is an even more evil woman.

ANIMAL KINGDOM explores the heart of a family, and its members, at their worst. It begs the question, what happens when apathy towards society and violence towards others comes in to play to get whatever you want? And in a world where we’re all given a place on the food chain, what will some do to claw their way to the top?

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