Australian export Animal Kingdom won the World Cinema Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival for good reason. The film depicts the lives of a Melbourne crime family whose glory days are fading fast. Bleak and unwavering without becoming oppressive, Animal Kingdom dispels any grandiose notions surrounding organized crime and instead focuses on the inevitable consequences of such a precarious lifestyle. The acting is superb across the board, and Animal Kingdom maintains a deliberate intensity throughout.
After his mother overdoses on heroin, Joshua "J" Cody (James Frecheville) moves in with the grandmother and uncles his mother never wanted him to see. The boy's grandmother, Janine Cody (Jacki Weaver), is a scrappy den mother to her three sons, Andrew (Ben Mendelsohn), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford). Involved in all manner of criminal activity, the Cody family attracts the attention of the Melbourne police force and Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce), the lead officer of the armed robbery squad. When one of the family's outside partners attempts to conclude his criminal affairs, he is shot dead in the parking lot of a grocery store, which leads the brothers to ambush the two officers responsible. Tired of the family's blatant lawbreaking, the Melbourne police then step up their efforts to end the reign of the violent Cody clan.
Seventeen-year-old J is forced into the middle of the criminal empire, and his uncles soon look to him to join the family business. In an impressive debut performance, Frecheville gives J a reserved, collected demeanor without losing his youthful innocence. J both fears his uncles and craves their attention, and, in a refreshing twist, J actually behaves like a teenager. J is rash and confused, and he does stupid things like bringing his girlfriend too close to the action. When the police attempt to get J to snitch on the family, his decision is not cut and dry. These are the people that gave him shelter and tough love, but they also are poised to cast him out at the first sign of trouble.
Some accomplished, gritty films have come out of Australia in the last several years, and Animal Kingdom follows suit. Those expecting the humor of Goodfellas or nostalgia of The Godfather aren't going to find it here. Animal Kingdom is content with exploring the terrible repercussions faced by failing career criminals. As depicted in the film, crime makes you paranoid, kills your family and bankrupts your soul; it is neither pleasant nor glamorous. The film's cast hits it out of the park to keep the narrative grounded in this reality. Much has been written about Weaver, and her performance here is worthy of all the press. Her effortless shepherding of such reckless brood is matched only by her drive to endure at any cost, an instinct that forces her to butt heads with J in the film's second half. Her loving demands for kisses and calls for respect between the brothers cannot overcome the fact that Janine is one malicious enabler. Pearce also does good work here as the one character actually concerned with any sort of permanent stability for J. Equally impressive are the actors who play the Cody brothers, especially Stapleton as Craig, the closest thing J has to a mentor in the film.
With its calculated pace, Animal Kingdom allows the tension to become almost unbearable at several points. Some terrible things happen in Animal Kingdom, and first-time director David Michôd knows exactly when to release the pressure long enough for viewers to catch their breath. Modern crime dramas are rarely this well acted, thoughtfully plotted or artfully directed. Animal Kingdom is one of the best films in recent memory.
Sony Pictures gives Animal Kingdom a strong 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that is without major flaws. The film has a tough, understated look with muted colors and realistic textures, and the transfer handles both daytime and nighttime scenes with ease. The image is nicely detailed, and most scenes in darker environments retain their definition. Skin tones are natural and a nice layer of grain is retained in the image. I noticed only a few instances of softness or compression artifacts.
The film's 5.1 Dolby Digital surround track is similarly strong, and it accurately replicates the film's sound design. Animal Kingdom is often a quiet film, and, while the track handles the soft voices well, it excels in the few instances of harsh, loud mayhem. Ambient noise and the film's score are appropriately integrated, and the track is surprisingly active in the rear speakers. Spanish and Portuguese 5.1 tracks also are available, as are English, English SDH, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.
The commentary with Director David Michôd is a solid first effort, and the director discusses the construction of many scenes and shares experiences from the set. The Making of Animal Kingdom (15:28) is a short documentary with cast interviews that primarily discusses the motivations of each major character. Also included are a Q&A with Director David Michôd and actors Jacki Weaver and James Frecheville (33:52), the film's theatrical trailer and a soundtrack promo.
One of the best films of 2010, Animal Kingdom is a tough Australian crime drama about the downfall of a Melbourne crime family. The film never glorifies the criminal lifestyle, and instead focuses on the consequences of such endeavors. With terrific performances and palpable tension, Animal Kingdom is thoroughly enjoyable. Sony's DVD provides excellent picture and sound and a few nice extras. Highly Recommended.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.