Animal Kingdom isn't the Australian version of Goodfellas that one might be led to believe, instead its own wild, cornered beast. It doesn't offer an ounce of appeal to the world of gangster bedlam, void of a cascade from glitz and glamor and of the heavy rise-and-fall rush that adorn many of its type. The gritty story of a teenager forcefully wedged into a world of guns, drugs, death, and retaliatory violence lacks any appealing traits to its culture at all, which turns into one of Aussie director David Michôd's central strengths. Instead, Michôd creates a perilous domestic environment, populated with compelling villains -- two in particular, for wildly different reasons -- that never let the electricity empty from its atmosphere.
Joshua, played by newcomer James Frenchville, had been warned of the dangers his uncles and grandmother pose. They're the lifeblood of a local crime ring dealing in all the troubling facets you'd expect from a rural clique of gangsters: drug-dealing, nightly violence, and constant distrust. When his mother ODs on heroin, something that didn't exactly take Joshua by surprise -- he sits there listlessly watching TV as the paramedics arrive -- he has nowhere to turn but his grandmother, the amorous but slyly-protective "Smurf" (Jacki Weaver), and by association the criminal network. Once he's under their roof, he naturally gets a taste of their dealings, from drugs and secret meetings across town to a pistol-fueled, empowering joyride with coked-up brute Craig (Sullivan Stapleton). And it seems like he's got a choice whether to participate, until the organization's leader, "Pope" (Ben Mendelsohn), lurks back into their den from hiding.
Structurally, Animal Kingdom sounds like something Martin Scorsese would direct, but Michôd's execution clearly veers from anything resembling such -- more City of God than Goodfellas, if anything. He bathes the crime drama in a cold, low-color aesthetic, while keeping the shots poised and matter-of-fact in their composition. There's no expository voiceover explaining how things collapse, nor any grand focus on the characters getting wrapped up in the allure of the life's benefits, and everything that goes on in the Cody household exists in an oblique perception of right and wrong. To us, Josh's uncles mostly seem like mundane guys just going about their everyday lives, even though we're more than aware that this isn't the case. It's just the way that the director portrays it, which feels calculated, collected, and compelling in its steady-handed but harsh manner.
Then, early on, the tension kicks into gear. Animal Kingdom's hectic intensity pivots around a murder that involves renegade cops and the crime family, which knocks the film's tone off-kilter into a danger zone. Revealing exactly what happens could spoil one of Michôd's more chest-rattling surprises, so I'll steer away from there; what does occur, however, completely changes any sense of safety or stability for Josh in the Cody's den, and a tried-and-true villain comes out of the woodwork in the form of Ben Mendelsohn's "Pope". As the snake's head to the Cody family's body, he's a frightening entity that never lets a disturbing, eerie air empty from any room he enters, easily standing out as one of this year's paramount villains from cinema. The slimy way he offers drugs, solicits the uncles' services, and unabashedly flees from violent scenes with no regard generates discomfited shivers.
Animal Kingdom burns deep and hot from that point on, unnervingly taking us through Josh's survival tactics -- and those of the Cody family -- in the midst of murder investigations. Michôd turns his eye on analyzing Josh as a conflicted youth once Detective Leckie enters the picture, showing how he's nothing more than a scared boy just trying to survive amid the animals in their house. James Frenchville and Guy Pearce build an intriguing rapport as Leckie probes the stone-walled young boy of his association with the family, knowing that there's manipulation behind his antics as the youngster sweats under a lamp in an interrogation room. Guy Pearce adds a legitimate weight to the film upon his appearance; even though his role's small in impact and presence, the demure, razor-jawed actor tips the scales with his sincerity as a persistent detective.
The ferocity, strangely enough, hits home with Jacki Weaver. Those watching Animal Kingdom with knowledge of the actress' award nominations might be puzzled early on. She starts out affectionate, a seemingly-blind omnipresent mother figure who lets her kisses loiter longer than our comfort zone deems proper, existing as an unassuming and weepy dingbat that doubles as an anchor. Again, there's a desire to talk about why this becomes an untrue statement, but suffice it to say that Weaver's Smurf somehow overshadows the poignancy of "Pope" as a menacing presence -- and a tormented mother/grandmother. Some of what she does late in Animal Kingdom showcases a deft perception of the script's gray-area grip on ethos, which then cascades onto her boys and their nervous scramble for survival. Weaver's fierce delivery in one essential scene late in the game, where she solicits the help of an "insider" by way of persuasion, thoroughly changes our perception of Smurf at the drop of a hat.
From start to finish, Animal Kingdom's a relentlessly-dark film without much in the way of hope for its characters. However, Aussie director Michôd has crafted a deft crescendo of a "domestic" gangster thriller here, one which slowly rides its volume all the way to an astoundingly potent, room-filling climax that justifies its bleak outlook. It feels every ounce of its 100-minute span, that's a certainty, but the methodical gears inside this story of a kid wedged in a situation he didn't choose consistently stays fidget-worthy unnerving. It certainly doesn't shies from claiming the lives of its characters; however, there's never a moment wasted nor lives taken in vain to the story's impact, bolstered by earthy performances that elevate the familiar structure to a furiously poignant level.
Video and Audio:
Framed at 2.4:1 in its originally-intended aspect ratio, Animal Kingdom's Blu-ray presentation shares many traits with Sony's high-quality handling of the 2008 Australian thriller The Square. Cold, stony, stylistically-subdued cinematography populates the 1080p AVC frame, handled in a way that emphasizes contrast and subtle fluctuations in palette. Detail remains strong amid this, offering crisp close-ups on Frenchville and Weaver that grapple excellent facial detail, while exterior shots combat both harsh- and low-lighting with a lot of grace -- seen in the sun-covered "gun" sequence with Joshua and Craig, and others. Some of the detail could be stronger and a bit of the image's harshness could've been handled more nimbly, though the overall look feels adept to the film's aesthetic aims and does the Panavision cameras used its proper due. Overall, though, this high-definition presentation retains cinematic appeal for this earthy independent crime drama.
The DTS HD Master Audio sneaks in a few impressive bursts of activity intermittently -- a shotgun blast here and there will rattle one's chest cavity, especially -- while preserving the dialogue in an audible fur shrug-worthy arrangement. The disc's aural clarity could've been better and less-constrained, sounding a bit thin and confined to the center-channel than it's made available here, while it offers little in dynamism to the rear-channels. Folks unaccustomed to persistent Australian accents might have a bit of trouble making out the dialogue, as the merely adequate verbal clarity rattles off in ways that might be troublesome -- though it'll be tolerable for those more acclimated. It does, however, manage to project "quiet" extremely well, allowing flutters of slight sound effects (noises in the pet shop, the creaks and bustle of the Cody house, stamping of feet in a field) to ring true appropriately. For those that require it, optional English and English SDH subtitles are available, along with a Spanish arrangement.
Audio Commentary with David Michôd:
Though sparse and clearly showing that the director possesses little experience in the commentary venue, Michôd's discussion hits on some points of interest that make the listen worthwhile. He discusses shooting locations, his need for charismatic actors on his first big project, lighting for the "pivotal" scene about 35 minutes in, and the reason why Guy Pearce has a anachronistic mustache in the film. His track's an earnest one, where he reflects fondly on many sequences without revealing too much about their construction.
Creating Animal Kingdom (1:11:25):
Within the first two minutes of this lengthy making-of doc, Michôd reveals that he pretty much tossed out the dialogue present in the first draft and, looking back now, thinks it's laughably-constructed. That's the kind of earnestness present in this assembly piece; sure, it's a mix of interviews with Michôd, his producers and cast/crew, but it takes its time in establishing the story of the film's construction. They discuss Michôd's first film, Crossbow and how its strengths evolved into Animal Kingdom, casting decisions (which comes alongside audition footage that's spliced in between their discussion), and how the director reacted to having such seasoned actors sitting around a table with his script in their hands. The piece then delves into the development and shooting sequences, which also offers sober behind-the-scenes shots matched with their actual counterparts. Clips from the film are strategically spliced into the piece, not just crammed in there as filler, and the material reflects on tried-and-true cinematic passion.
Rounding out the special features, a lengthy Q&A with David Michôd, Jacki Weaver, James Frenchville, and Sullivan Stapleton (333:52) dips into personal experiences without offering too much in the way of material not covered in the commentary and assembly feature. Also, a great but somewhat spoiler-heavy Theatrical Trailer (2:02) for Animal Kingdom has been included.
Animal Kingdom is a beast of an indie crime-thriller, one that rides a rush of suspense from its simmering beginnings into the harsh, deftly-aware surroundings of an Australian gang family. Tremendous performances take a familiar narrative design and throttle it through an electric atmosphere, remaining steeped in bleak-but-involving developments until its chaotic, dramatically-explosive conclusion. Nothing feels stale about David Michôd filmmaking, from his direction to his adept screenwriting, which deserves the accolades it's received this far. Sony's Blu-ray offer the film in a strong audiovisual presentation that retain the picture's harsh, eerie look, while a few special features once again prove that a fine commentary and a concentrated making-of feature can be all the supplements one could need. Highly Recommended.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site