"Mom kept me away from her family because she was scared." After seeing Animal Kingdom, you can't blame her. The "me" in that line is Joshua "J" Cody (James Frecheville), who looks on impassively in the film's first scene as paramedics work on his overdosed mother, a game show blasting on the TV. He calls his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver) primarily because he doesn't know what else to do. She gladly welcomes him into their large family, a collection of gruff men who specialize in masked, armed robberies. To call the domestic dynamic tricky would be something of an understatement.
David Michôd's Animal Kingdom is a family crime epic with dirt on the floor, a picture that reaches for no effects, just steadily building, ominously, perilously. "J" wanders into their world, keeps his head down, doesn't say much. The Cody family gang is already in a precarious state--the leader of the gang, "Pop" (Ben Mendelsohn) is in hiding, and his partner and friend "Baz" (Joel Edgerton) has grown weary of the running and gunning. Craig (Sullivan Stapelton) is carrying a speed and coke addiction that's starting to spin out of control. "J"'s youngest uncle, Darren (Luke Ford), scarcely older than him, is just trying to keep up.
They're watched over by Janine, whom everyone calls "Smurf," and she's a piece of work--she plays the role of the loving matriarch, all "honey"s and "sweetie"s and "give us a kiss"es, but she lingers, ickily, a bit too long when she kisses her boys, and the more time we spend with her, the clearer it becomes that she's the black, ruthless soul of the family, cold blood running to a warm face. Late in the film, there's a chilling scene where she explains to a police contact exactly how things are and how they're going to be, and she plays it right to the bone, without any of the obvious signals that a lesser actor might throw us.
Much more plot than that I cannot discuss; writer/director Michôd shakes the snow globe early on with the ruthless murder of a major character that is so unexpected, it takes the wind out of you. It's an old trick, but it still works--a signal to the audience that no one is safe, and from that point on, all bets are off. Michôd, who has a gift for finding striking visuals in mundane, everyday environs, slowly and patiently builds a sense of unwinding dread, which becomes so thick it threatens to suffocate you. He's keenly tuned in to the inevitability of the picture's action, and our awareness of it; once things go south for "J," he's holding shots just a beat too long, toying with the audience, with our recognition that bad things will happen, it's just a matter of time.
He also knows when to leave a scene out--the courtroom conclusions we're waiting for at the end are passed right by (they're not necessary), and we never actually see the gang in action (just creepy, effective surveillance stills in the opening credits, with the moody score adding another layer of unease). His focus, instead, is on the psychological make-up of the family, the specific ways in which they work each other over. Mendelsohn is particularly frightening as Pope--it's a portrait of dead-eyed, dull-edged, everyday evil, the kind of thing Gary Oldman (whom the actor bears a passing resemblance to) does so well. Guy Pearce, the film's only recognizable name on these shores, is quietly effective in the notably un-flashy role of a police detective who sees the new youngster as a way to penetrate the family; his cop is a grinder, a workaday guy, and Pearce admirably restrains the urge to take him over the top. Same goes for newcomer Frecheville, who is something of a blank slate, but that feels right--he's an audience surrogate (a la Henry Hill in Goodfellas) and allows us to draw our own conclusions about him and what he's seeing. In fact, his impenetrability is an unexpected boon to the picture's concluding scenes, where we're so unsure of his intentions that the entire narrative seems up in the air.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
The MPEG-4 AVC transfer isn't exactly lustrous; the picture has a very natural, simple look, almost grubby, with a little bit of grit and a little bit of train. But the presentation is clean and sharp, nicely replicating the theatrical viewing experience. Darkness and shadows are rich and thick, and saturation--while mostly subtle--is occasionally vivid, as in the cold, hard blues of the nighttime cop stop scene. No real complaints; this is a solid image.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is deftly assembled--the film is mostly quiet and low-key, but when it sparks (as in the scary chase around the 80-minute mark), it pierces. The mournful music has tremendous weight, and music cues are especially dense (dig the heavy echoes during "All Out of Love"). Environmental effects--pet shop noises, crickets chirping during Pearce's monologue--are subtle but effective. The thick accents are occasionally troublesome, and the quiet dialogue levels may require a bit of remote jockeying. But overall, it's a fine mix.
English, English SDH, Spanish, and commentary subtitles are also available.
Fans of the film may be distressed by the minimum of bonus features, but rest assured, Sony has gone with quality and length over quantity. First up is the Audio Commentary with director David Michôd. Though he occasionally searches for things to say, and acknowledges it ("Is this boring? It's problaby boring"), Michôd is an engaging if low-key commentator, smart and passionate about his project and his cast.
"Creating Animal Kingdom" (1:11:25) is a lengthy, detailed look at the making of the film, beginning with the premiere at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, then doubling back with Michôd and his cast and crew recalling the extended writing process, the development of the feature, casting, rehearsal (with tape from those sessions), pre-production, shooting (with extensive behind-the-scenes footage), and post-production. It's a well-made and comprehensive extra.
The "Q&A with Director David Michôd and Actors Jacki Weaver and James Frecheville" (33:53) features red carpet and post-screening Q&A from the picture's L.A. Film Festival screening. The original Theatrical Trailer (2:02), additional Sony previews, and BD-Live accessibility close out the bonus features.
Michôd's soundtrack makes occasional use of cheeseball power-pop, but not just for easy, snicker-snicker irony. He slathers on effects (visual and aural) to add distortion and tension, making a song like "I'm All Out of Love" a vehicle of real tightness and power (probably for the first time). He doesn't make a habit of over-stylization, though; for the most part, Animal Kingdom is played close to the vest, and Michôd takes in the Codys' rituals and behavior with an anthropologist's eye. This is potent, powerful filmmaking.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.