Review by Nathan Samdahl (B)
Animal Kingdom is the gritty and violent debut feature from talented writer/director David Michod. Set in the dangerous Melbourne underworld, Animal Kingdom revolves around a young man thrust into a family of crime and the severe consequences that result. Michod has crafted a near great yet slightly flawed film.
Michod's visual style is beautiful, a mixture of a young Danny Boyle with a bit of P.T. Anderson. The images he and DP Adam Arkapaw create are both natural and gritty, yet thoughtfully composed and assembled. The film is a bit similar in nature to another strong entry this year, Daniel Barber's Harry Brown (starring Michael Caine). Both films explore similar topics such as the cyclical nature of violence and the effects of violence on teens. Both directors also create a dark, natural (and at times ultra-real) backdrop for the main characters to exist. Of the two, Barber's effort feels a bit tighter, the story a bit more focused. But Animal Kingdom, which views the violent world from the perspective of the criminals (versus Harry Brown, which sees the world through the eyes of its vigilante good Samaritan protagonist), sets a slow and steady pace that really makes the audience realize the oppressiveness of living such a violent lifestyle and the extreme difficulties of finding a way out.
Where Animal Kingdom falters a bit is with the main character Joshua. Played by newcomer James Frecheville, who does deliver a strong performance, Josh is, without much choice, thrown into a criminal lifestyle over which he has little control. The head criminal, played to creepy success by Ben Mendelsohn, keeps his younger brothers and Josh on a pretty tight leash. Given this situation, Josh remains passive for much of the film, despite being presented with many opportunities to do the right thing and excise himself from the situation. Particularly towards the end, my desire for Josh to stand up for himself falls short. Josh continues to make passive decisions all the way through the end, making the newfound respect he seems to gain in the final scene a bit forced. Perhaps others will disagree with me on this point, but as is, Josh's lack of decision-making hurts the last act of the film, which revolves around Josh having to, yes, actually make decisions.
Despite this character flaw, the film is very strong. Also, it must be mentioned that the performance of the seemingly sweet yet highly manipulative grandmother, played to perfection by Jacki Weaver, is definitely worth the watch.
I'm definitely eager to see Michod's next effort. In the meantime, we can all watch the upcoming film Hesher (written by Michod), a Sundance favorite soon to be released, or one of the shorts he wrote such as Spider (which is available online) and the zombie romance I Love You Sarah (directed by Hesher director Spencer Susser and starring Mia Wasikowska). Michod will definitely be a director to watch in upcoming years.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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