The A.V. Club’s review of Animal Kingdom spends a fair bit of time complaining about protagonist J’s monotonous line delivery and seeming lack of emotions, which is amazing considering that it’s pretty clear that his flatness is part of the character and not the fault of the actor. The review also compares the film to the works of Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, as if to say that this film is gently ripping them off, case closed.
I suppose there’s something to be said for the idea that Animal Kingdom isn’t totally original. We join a crime family as they try to stay one step ahead of the cops, but the Melbourne police are getting tired of playing games and are starting to go out looking for blood. J is a young kid who is pulled into this world on accident – before her death, his mother had made it a point to remove him from his family’s grip – but now the boy is in the thick of it, so he’s going to have to watch his back.
That alone is kind of over-done. And there are certainly times where the action becomes a little bit cliched. As with many films of the genre, when things seem to be going well are when they are soon to be at their worst – I guess it’s the hilarity of the juxtaposition that makes this such a common occurrence. Similarly, I had a pretty good idea of where the end was going long before it got there. The real strength of Animal Kingdom, then, comes in some terrific performances and some occasionally poignant moments in the screenplay.
Ben Mendelsohn gets the vast majority of the praise, in an amazing performance as one of J’s uncles. Where other characters grind their teeth or glance around nervously to show their hidden fears, Uncle Pope (Mendelsohn) maintains a cold stare. He’s not staring at anything in particular, his eyes just burning with rage. Where he begins the movie seeming a little slow, it soon becomes clear that his mind is moving at lighting pace, running over and over the problems he has to deal with and growing ever more bitter and desperate. It’s wonderful when just the way he looks at a character can say so much more than any line would be possible to convey. Which is not to say that the other actors don’t hold their own. Jacki Weaver, as J’s grandma ‘Smurf’ is also excellent, as well as Luke Ford and Guy Pearce. There is always more to the character than we understand at first, the driving force which keeps them on the paths that they have chosen.
As far as those small moments, there are four that quickly come to mind. The opening shot and the closing moments are both just outstanding. If there is any lack of originality in the midsection of the movie, it can almost be forgiven for having such a strong open and close. When I talk about the ending, I am mostly speaking with regard to the last line of spoken dialogue (in addition to the subsequent action). There’s also a moment where a frightened J pleads with his girlfriend’s father to drive him away – anywhere to get away from the danger that is on his heels now. What follows is an amazing shot, where the two characters (J and his girlfriend’s father) pull slowly backward out of the garage and into the driveway. The characters are both looking over their shoulders, but for different reasons: the dad is carefully pulling out of his driveway, but J is breathless, anticipating an attack. To pack that much tension into a scene of a car pulling out of a driveway shows how skillfully the film was made.
And then of course, there’s a moment where homicide detective Guy Pearce speaks candidly with J about his family’s troubled waters. The police know that the family is involved in criminal activity, it’s just a matter of getting someone to squeal. Pearce gives a speech that occasionally crosses the line into overt symbolism, but mostly serves a greater purpose. He intends to convince J to give up his uncles to the authorities, but the speech does a better job of exhibiting who Pearce’s character is. He looks at J in a somewhat paternal manner, wanting to keep the kid out of trouble, but at the same time he knows that J is a means to an end. Perhaps he is showing his hand too readily when he tells the boy that there are those in this world who are strong and there are those who rely on the strong.
Animal Kingdom has a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes currently. A friend asked me whether I felt that the movie deserved such a high rating. I do think that it’s a magnificent film, but I’m not sure that it quite reaches the heights that that sort of rating implies. There are several brief moments of exhilaration, and the performances truly do carry the movie when the story strays into weaker areas. But the times when the movie dips into the same-old storyline that we’re used to seeing still stick out too prominently. Altogether, it makes for a great movie that is so so close to being outstanding.. but barely misses the mark.
Still, definitely definitely check it out.