First films tend to play more as a checklist of a filmmaker’s ambitions than as entirely coherent features. Animal Kingdom, the most acclaimed Australian film released last year, is writer-director David Michôd’s feature film debut, and it’s immediately clear that he’s aiming for a crime film of nearly bibilical sound and fury. Michôd wants to par the crime picture of the rollicking flippancy of movies that celebrate bank robbers as ironic rock stars. As his title suggests, Michôd is interested in making the bank robber dangerous again.
The film opens on a grim, attention-grabbing note. A teenager, J (James Frecheville), is watching a game show with his mother, who is presumably asleep on the couch. The paramedics show up, and it’s revealed that J’s mom has fatally overdosed on something. J, eerily impassive, calls his estranged grandmother Janine Cody (a.k.a. “Smurf”), who arrives soon after to bring her grandson into the fold of her band of outlaws, which includes her two sons—fidgety, combative Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and young, easily manipulated Darren (Luke Ford)—and their friend and presumable leader Baz Brown (Joel Edgerton). A third son, called Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), is hiding from the corrupt Armed Robbery division following a tip that he was to be next on what is probably little more than a hit list.
The highs of the expected bank robbery film are pointedly absent, as the gang is beginning to splinter under the threat of death or prison from the film’s beginning. Michôd never gives us a big set piece with guns and masks and split-timed safe cracking, and the film is all the better without it. The crooks aren’t sympathetic hunks looking for a last score; they’re legitimately awful and dangerous madmen except for one, and he’s abruptly disposed of with shockingly arbitrary viciousness. The cops are nearly as amoral, with the exception of an officer played by Guy Pearce, but his efforts are effectively mooted by under-the-table shenanigans. Our surrogate, J, who one could reasonably expect to serve as the film’s “heart,” isn’t a lovable Dickensian orphan, but a nonentity whose passivity you grow to increasingly resent as the film progresses.
Michôd seems to think his survival-of-the-fittest scenario is more original than it actually is, and he stretches what should really be a down-and-dirty 90-minute genre piece into something that is meant to be a somewhat epic treatment of the essential lawlessness of man. That theme, a variation of which can be found in basically every self-serious crime movie by a young director ever made, ultimately doesn’t hold the weight of the filmmaker’s ambitions. Certain scenes are played way too slow, and there are about five montages when two or probably even one would have done just fine. But Michôd is talented: His dialogue is mostly restrained, the performances are terrific, the shock scenes actually work, and the atmosphere is convincingly seamy and unstable. The parts don’t all come together, but Animal Kingdom is still a striking film in a genre littered with desperately hip pretenders.
Animal Kingdom is a film of somewhat washed-out browns, resembling a western in the tradition of a number of Australian crime films. The DVD vividly maintains the film's mixture of the intimate and the grand—of grainy, handheld images that are somewhat unexpectedly framed in a scope ratio. The film is meant to be a sweaty, claustrophobic yet oddly beautiful experience, and that more than comes through in this transfer. The sound is even better, emphasizing the pretty good mixtures of diegetic and non-diegetic sound, especially in an early scene of a character's mourning where a pop song gradually makes way for the film's more obsessive score.
The director's commentary is engaging as well as revealing in terms of a number of the film's flaws. David Michôd was indeed aiming for a grand, "serious" Melbourne-set crime movie, which influenced production choices such as the use of 35mm (he was afraid Animal Kingdom would look too much like a television show) to even the pacing of the film's more ponderous moments. Michôd strikes one as eager, promising, and self-conscious, which precisely describes the film itself. The Q&A is about as interesting as a film festival's interview panel can be, which is to say not very. The cast and crew are gracious and affectionate, but that doesn't change the simple fact that questions asked at these sorts of occasions are virtually always the same, and seem to usually boil down to the silliest question of all, "Where do you get your ideas?" Rounding out the disc is a standard making-of featurette and a theatrical trailer.
A decent presentation of an uneven but unusually intense crime thriller.