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Animal Kingdom (Movie)

June 4, 2010

If you thought No Country for Old Men was grim, take a look at the new Australian movie Animal Kingdom which won the World Cinema Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. While No Country for Old Men was chilling in its portrayal of – there’s no other way to say it – evil, Animal Kingdom is more “down and dirty”. It deals with the escalation of violence between a relatively small-time (or so it seemed at the start) crime family and the police – and comprehends those grand themes of love, loyalty and betrayal. It’s set in Melbourne in the 1980s, a time when lawlessness was, let’s say, a little rife not only among criminals (ha!) but within the police force. I can’t remember the last time I saw a drama that brought so many shocked gasps from the audience – even when you knew what was going to happen!

The focus of the story is “J” (Josh), played by newcomer James Frecheville, whose mother dies at the start of the film. This results in his moving in with his grandmother and uncles, they making up the crime family in question. Josh, not yet 18 years old, quickly finds himself in a tricky situation from which he seems unable to extricate himself. As the criminal behaviours increase, so does our awareness of just how dysfunctional Josh’s extended family is, not to mention how murky the so-called “law” is, so that we, the audience, become almost as disoriented as Josh about who to trust. The film is beautifully controlled right up to the end: it has a (partially) satisfying resolution but at the same time leaves much unresolved. How good is that?

There is not a dud amongst the cast. Frecheville’s playing of Josh as a rather naive, (superficially) expressionless and uncommunicative teen is so well done that it’s hard to tell when he actually grows up, but grow up he does do as the film progresses. It is in his interests though not to let on…and that certainly adds to the tension for the audience.  Jacki Weaver (who went to my old high school – that of the “whispering gums”) plays the increasingly disturbing – or is it disturbed? – unsubtle mother of her family of criminals with great subtlety. Her true colours are a long time coming out though you suspect that, being the mother of such a family, those colours are there! (The gorgeous) Guy Pearce manages to play the sensitive cop so sensitively that he comes across as real, rather than sentimental as can happen with such roles. And Ben Mendelsohn (last reviewed here in Beautiful Kate) plays the most unhinged of the criminal brothers with a quiet coldness that is truly scary. The rest of the cast is equally good … but it’s time to move on to ….

First time director David Michôd’s direction is sure. The camera is often low and in your face – so that you really are in there with the characters much of the time. The lighting is, appropriately, mostly subdued. The pace is slow, but not too much so, as nothing is overly dwelt on. There’s no playing for our emotions here: things happen, people react, and we move on. (I’d love to give an example or two but don’t want to spoil it). Some significant scenes aren’t shown at all – Michôd gives his audience the benefit of the doubt that we will get it.

A quick Google search brings up a number of tags for this film. Teen drama, Gangster film,  and Thriller are some I’ve seen. I, however, prefer plain old Crime drama. Whichever way you classify it, though, this is a film to see – but only if you don’t mind gritty, confronting films. If you prefer your movies light and cheery, go see Sex and the City 2!

37 Comments leave one →
  1. June 4, 2010 1:33 am

    From the title I thought the movie would be some kind of nature show about animals. I feel tricked! Just kidding. Sounds like an intense movie.

  2. June 4, 2010 2:29 am

    Sounds like my sort of film.

  3. June 4, 2010 6:02 am

    Oh my god. Ben Mendelsohn is still acting? I don’t think I’ve seen him in anything for decades!

  4. June 4, 2010 7:19 am

    Stefanie: yes, it’s a disconcerting title. Animal Jungle might have been more like it because that’s the intent. I meant to mention the title in the review, also the wonderfully spare script, but decided I’d written enough! It certainly is intense.

    Guy: with your interest in film and noir in particular, you were my first thought as I wrote this. I’d love to hear your opinion if you get to see this. I expect it will have a wider release than many Australian films.

    Kimbofo: yes, he is. He’s not THAT old! In fact I think he’d be about your age? Though I think I know what you mean – there’s so few Australian films made and so few get international release that he hasn’t been obviously out there but, as I mentioned he was in last year’s Beautiful Kate as well.

    • June 4, 2010 11:56 am

      I put it in my Netflix queue. It’s not available yet, but when it is, I’ll watch it.

      I read somewhere that the Australian film industry was going down the toilet with the economy and whatnot. I hope not.

      I also have Balibo in the queue too (no date available yet).


      • June 4, 2010 11:39 pm

        You are right – it’s not going wonderfully well at present despite some very good movies in the last year. There are just not enough of them. I’m not sure it’s totally current-economy-related thought that can’t have helped. (Did you read my review of Balibo? Or did you order it because you heard of it from elsewhere?)

    • June 4, 2010 9:32 pm

      Yes, he’s just a few months older than me… My sister and I used to have such a crush on him! LOL.

  5. June 4, 2010 5:01 pm

    Gosh, I don’t really associate Australia with organised crime, particularly Melbourne which I thought was such a civilised place! Sounds like a good film – but not relased in the UK as far as I know

    • June 4, 2010 9:35 pm

      Tom, not that I want to diss my home city, but Melbourne was in the grip of a major gangland war for more than a decade. See

      There’s a book about it (‘Leadbelly’ by Andrew Rule and John Silvester), which I reviewed on my blog a year or so ago. The whole gangland thing has also been turned into a TV series called Underbelly, which is worth a look if you can track down the DVD.

      • June 4, 2010 10:45 pm

        So glad you said it kimbofo! Tom, she’s right. And Underbelly (no. 1) was a pretty gripping series.

  6. June 4, 2010 6:03 pm

    It sounds like a worthy winner – and compellingly watchable: that’s a persuasive review! Unfortunately, have had enough traumata during past few years (including buckets of blood – my own, I hasten to add ;-)) to ensure I run miles from even the fictional variety, especially if it mirrors reality. Wimp, eh? Yup.
    All the same, Sue, I HATE SatC! Not a fan of Hollywood in general; prefer the subtleties and naturalistic acting of the very best of le cinéma français.
    Still, Australian cinema sounds like it’s in a healthy state – definitely something to celebrate, so I shall! Bon weekend to you & yours.

    • June 4, 2010 10:52 pm

      Thanks Minnie. Actually, our industry is struggling a bit but there have been some really good films made in the last year or so. Just not enough for a good healthy industry. I like a variety of cinema. I’m not much into standard Hollywood fare. The SatC alternative was a bit of a joke! I know there are good alternatives to grim films besides SatC! Do you go to the cinema much? Oh, an bon weekend à toi, aussi!

      • June 5, 2010 10:42 am

        “Just not enough for a good healthy industry,” has been the problem for years, and will probably go on being the problem for years, on and on and on. I’ve been hoping they’d release this one in the cinemas since I saw it mentioned in an article about Sundance. One film blogger out there (I don’t remember who) compared it favourably to The Boys, and that was a fine, dank film.

  7. June 5, 2010 12:54 am

    No, Gummie, I didn’t read the review of Balibo, I came across it elsewhere. I only found your blog a couple of weeks ago. Anyway now I will go and look for the review.

    I think I read that either 12 or 15 films were expected to be made in Australia next year. Something like that.

  8. June 5, 2010 2:44 pm

    DKS: You are right of course. There have been some up periods but they’ve never been sustained have they? It’s a shame that audiences still don’t support Aussie films as well as they might, as there really have been some great ones.

    Guy: That’s a bit lower than usual, but could be right. Here is Screen Australia’s summary of productions per year for the last few decades. The last decade averaged 25 per year: Not a huge number even then, really.

  9. June 6, 2010 5:52 am

    And in the meantime, Hollywood makes far too many….

  10. June 9, 2010 9:26 am

    I saw it last night. Agree on all points. The cinematography is terrific — all the male characters have cheeks like pebblemix and half the scenes, lit with greenish-dim, seem to be taking place in murk at the bottom of a pond. The acting is extraordinarily good. I am full of awe at James F., who has a magnificently unforgiving role. He’s the centre of the film and yet the script gives him almost nothing to say, and those few things he does say are not the kind of speeches that an actor can build a performance around, they’re mainly nothing-lines like, “Yeah,” and “Nuh,” and “I suppose so.” But look at him: he pulls it off, he kills it. And Jacki Weaver, with her sweet creak of a voice, and Ben Mendelsohn, who was so ratlike in a blue shirt that I didn’t recognise him at first, and Joel E., who turned Baz into a mildly sympathetic character without being obtrusive about it, and Pearce (whose moustache I overheard being critiqued by other audience members), and ignorant Nicky with her pug-dog eyes, and even whoever it was who played the woman in the gallery scene — and the nice dad — all the smaller parts — blandish Randall — Peace’s partner — they were all pretty much perfect.

    A group of friends directly behind us gasped like a wind tunnel, the whole row of them, when the first gun went off. And there were a couple of those scenes where you know what’s going to happen, and you don’t want it to happen, and you think, “This is going to be awful when it happens,” and then it happens. The way Michod held the camera on that car backing out of a driveway, that was cruel. Seeing Animal Kingdom a week after I Love You Too made me appreciate the nine years he spent on the script. (Joel Edgerton speaking the truth in an interview: “From an actor’s point of view, it felt like the malevolence of the film was so laced into the fabric of the characters that none of us had to really act like we were tough guys.”)

  11. June 9, 2010 8:02 pm

    Just lost the response I wrote. Can I bear to type it again? No. Just said that I agree re James F – he was amazing in the way he managed to combine the impassiveness of a teenage boy with expressiveness. As for script, you are so right … I saw Ghostwriter today (on a plane) and the first thing I noticed was the script. So inane by comparison. I believe I love you too will be on the return flight. So a treat is in store? Not?

    • June 10, 2010 9:33 am

      Not a scripting treat, and not a directing treat (I think the director came from TV, and the directing is functional — you don’t notice it, which is something, but it doesn’t contribute a lot beyond that) but Peter Dinklage’s performance is treatish. He plays abrasive-yet-charming and he’s so good at it that he’d make a better romantic lead than the romantic lead.

      The script isn’t rotten, per se, it’s like the directing, it’s just sort of there. It looks as if the writers have gone in and said, “All right, we need to set this up, we need to put a scene here to explain that other scene there, we need some foreshadowing, and let’s make the climax more urgent by doing XYZ,” so all of the basic pieces are in place (which, speaking as someone who has tried to write long works of fiction, is not something I’m going to sneeze at) but there’s nothing that would make you say, “The romcomness of the film was so laced into the fabric of the characters that none of us had to really act like we were romcommy.”

      The sound-work in Animal Kingdom was great as well — sometimes very dense and frightening, and sometimes it dropped away, leaving you with your ears pricked, wondering what was about to happen.

      • June 10, 2010 9:59 am

        Perhaps inane was wrong … but I did say “by comparison”! It was ordinary – the main issue for me WAS the overexplaining. It was clunky – I assume you were talking about Ghostwriter?

        And yes, I nearly commented on the sound as well re Animal Kingdom. It was beautifully done – barely there at times so the action happened, and other times intense. Sound is an important part of movies for me and I did like how it was handled. It wasn’t “in your face”.

  12. June 10, 2010 5:32 pm

    No, I haven’t seen Ghostwriter. I meant I Love You Too.

    • June 10, 2010 9:42 pm

      Oh, of course, that makes sense. Silly me. Well, if I see it on our return I shall let you know if I agree,

  13. residentjudge permalink
    June 16, 2010 6:03 pm

    We went to see it on the long weekend. Very impressed! As a Melburnian, there were enough allusions for locals to recognize the Walsh St police killings and similarities to Kath Pettingill, the matriarch of a ‘crime family’ who were implicated in the police deaths. But I strongly suspect that even if you were not aware of the real-life parallels, the story is universal enough for a much wider audience. I see in some of the interviews etc. that there was a conscious decision not to impersonate anyone or try to stick too closely to actual events, and I think it was a better movie for that. I must say that the whole Underbelly thing has passed me by- thus putting me in a prime position on the jury of the next underworld trial no doubt!

    • June 17, 2010 5:59 pm

      Thanks RJ for adding that perspective. I wasn’t aware of the connections until after I saw the film and I still haven’t read up fully on them. That’s interesting – and probably good really – that they didn’t try to impersonate anyone. It’s sometimes better I think to try to springboard off another story rather than try to replicate it isn’t it?

      LOL re Jury! I would certainly be rejected as I have loved watching the Underbelly series. One of the award-winning writers lives in Canberra and we’ve met her a few times (friend of a friend). It’s been a real experience for her – and interesting for us to learn about some of the ins and outs of writing such a script.

  14. July 15, 2010 2:24 am

    Nice piece about the film on the BBC blog:

    Wish they’d hurry up and release it in the UK!

    • July 16, 2010 12:02 am

      Thanks for sharing that kimbofo. I like his review of the film BUT I also liked those ones with disappointingly sparse dialogue because that suited those movies, particularly Samson and Delilah since language is an issue for remote indigenous Australians. I have just got home from the latest Aussie movie to be released, The waiting city. Enjoyed it – may not blog it though unless something comes to me in the next day or so that I really want to say about it. In other words, it didn’t have the same impact for me as some of the others I’ve seen in the last year and blogged about.

  15. December 12, 2010 11:21 am

    Just watched this. Fantastic.

    • December 12, 2010 8:04 pm

      Thanks for checking back in Guy. It’s great when commenters report back but I sometimes find it hard to remember which blogger to go back to!

      Anyhow, Animal Kingdon scooped the pool last night at our AFI awards. Did you agree with my review? Any different perspectives to add?

  16. December 12, 2010 11:38 am

    Anyone read this?:
    The Matriarch: The Kathy Pettingill Story

  17. December 13, 2010 4:29 am

    What’s so interesting about Animal Kingdom is that, for a crime film, there’s really not a great deal of violence. Of course you have to keep in mind that I’m a fan of the genre and watch a great deal of crime. The violence here is rapid yet (and seems to be aknee-jerk reaction) but underneath the surface it’s very considered. No long torture scenes or knife slicing. It’s BAM! Thinking over all the killings, the characters who commit the crimes (the police who kill legally & the crims who kill illegally) have done all the thinking beforehand. That’s why it’s so shocking to us. It seems to come out of the blue, but it really doesn’t. It simply that WE don’t think the same way. In the end,Josh has begun to think like them. He’s become one of the srong instead of one of the weak.

    Really an incredible film.

    • December 13, 2010 10:45 am

      Thanks Guy for adding those perspectives — it all adds up to something very chilling and, as you say, that’s largely because of the premeditation/coldness of it, the absolute disregard for others. BTW No, I haven’t read The matriarch… hadn’t actually realised it existed. Could be interesting though.

  18. December 13, 2010 11:12 am

    Someone else mentioned a problem with the detective’s apparent lack of recognition of corruption in his dept. I agree. At some point, he should have realised there was a problem. That wasn’t really addressed. But apart from that…

    • December 13, 2010 3:08 pm

      Hmmm … I don’t recollect that being an issue for me though it’s been a few months now since I saw it and his role is probably the one I remember least in the long term. Will have to look at it again one day.

  19. October 21, 2011 3:21 pm


    I’ve just finished watching this on DVD and feel I must talk to you about it. Yes, after a whole year, finally I got to watch this film… very intense and excellent performance by the whole cast. Who’s this James Frecheville (Josh), he’s a ‘newcomer’? Brilliant. I mean, all the other ones are veteran actors, Jacki Weaver, Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn… this is my first time noticing Ben M. but apparently he’s a long-time Australian actor. He’s much more sinister than Javier Bardem in “No Country” because he kills while befriending. I’m drawn into “Animal Kingdom” much more than “No Country”, maybe because of the ‘family’ relationships, as you said, love, loyalty, and betrayal. Just before the final “resolution”, I thought oh no, not another “Crimes and Misdemeanors” or “No Country” for that matter, where the criminal goes free in a most absurd way. But I’m glad that’s how it ends here. It’s animal kingdom out there, but hey, there’s still some ‘animal justice’. And to confuse even Darwin, the line between the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’ may be blurred and undefined. This is one of the best films I’ve seen in recent years. I want to praise more, but, this is getting too long. Thanks for writing a great review on it, albeit I’m a year too late in commenting!

  20. October 21, 2011 8:36 pm

    Oh, thanks for coming back Arti after seeing the film. I’m so glad you liked it. Yes, Mendelsohn is a veteran Aussie actor but probably not well know outside this country. I like your reference to Darwin … good one. I hope the director does more features.

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