Sunday, August 29, 2010

Film Review: Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom:  C

Another victim of the hype machine, David Michod's Animal Kingdom is just a boilerplate cinematic recyclable that does nothing to make itself stand out from the pack nor does it re-contextualize its' proceedings in such a way as to make it worthwhile.  This Australian crime drama details the Cody family, a criminal unit tied into the armed robbery bracket in Melbourne.  Four brothers (mentally unstable Pope, drugged-out Craig, forward-thinking Baz, and malleable Darren) make up the amoral gang, but this testosterone-packed clan is overseen by its matriarch, Smurf.  As played by Jackie Weaver, Smurf is a petite, bottle-blond with pancaked, garish make-up who as the film progresses increasingly demonstrates a maternal love for her children that hinges on the sociopathic.  She's also the most engaging character in the film because of her warped love for family and her artful manipulation of those around her.

At the beginning of the film, the brothers begin to see the writing on the wall for their way of life due to the local law enforcement's decision to fight such illicit proceedings with swift, brutal, and decisive violence.  Into this close-knit clique comes the teenage Joshua "J" Cody, the nephew of the four outlaws, who has grown up outside the murderous world of his uncles and grandma because his mother had a falling out with the family.  The film opens with J sitting impassively beside his mother, who moments later we learn is dead from an overdose.  With seemingly no one else to call, he telephones Grandma Smurf, who picks him up and takes him under her wing.  Soon, J is plugged into a network of criminality both familial and police.

A huge fault within Animal Kingdom exists with the character of J.  Viewed as a sponge of sorts who absorbs all of the schemes and internecine conflicts that coalesce between cops and criminals (often one in the same), the character as written and portrayed is a banal, introspective man-child who must navigate the murky waters of right and wrong without ever quite revealing his desire to stay above water.  Only J's voice-over reveals his character as someone who has a deeper understanding of his surroundings and its inhabitants than he demonstrates.  The problem with this particular approach is Michod has written J as a conduit for the audience yet he lacks any real magnetism to draw us into into this particular animal kingdom.  J's common expression is blankness, a tabula rasa of sorts, which makes sense and makes J the character you least want to spend screen time on.

As the noose methodically tightens around the Cody family, Animal Kingdom does an extremely slow burn.  Very few scenes exhibit any sense of tension, which saps all potential energy from the film until it fizzles out.  A couple blasts of violence (the finest being a shockingly early one involving the bloody death of a someone believed to be a major character) attempt to jump start the film, but most of the movie remains lifeless.  Michod shows real restraint at avoiding gratuitously sordid situations, but I'll avoid the term "admirable" because I would have liked a little bit more shock and awe to add some pop to the film's proceedings.  The whole film feels rudimentary from its characters, a series of stock types, to the mechanics of the plot to its' central thematic concept spelled out in the film's title.  I don't know if critics are fawning over this film because they're enchanted by the Australian accents, but this film is simply another carcass littering the highway of cinematic crime dramas.  Go rent The Proposition for another Australian film detailing an outlaw family and the weight of morality, or lack thereof, that burdens the choices individuals make in order to stay alive.    


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