Review: Animal Kingdom (Sundance)
PLOT: When his mother dies of a heroin overdose, seventeen-year-old Josh (James Frecheville) is sent to live with his grandmother (Jacki Weaver), and his four criminal uncles; Baz (Joel Edgerton), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), Darren (Luke Ford), and Pope (Ben Mendelsohn). When Baz is executed by a group of dirty cops, the other brothers quickly fall under the sway of the psychotic Pope. Meanwhile, Josh is befriended by a straight-arrow detective (Guy Pearce), who hopes he'll turn against his uncles, and help him put the brothers behind bars.
REVIEW: Without a doubt, ANIMAL KINGDOM was the best film I saw at Sundance this year. It's a crime masterpiece that compares favorably to classics of the genre like CHOPPER, BRONSON, and LOCK, STOCK & TWO SMOKING BARRELS. Heck, I'm even tempted to compare it to something like GOODFELLAS', but, as I've still only seen this once, it might be a little premature to compare it to that masterpiece.
Nevertheless, it's an incredible Australian crime flick, directed by newcomer David Michod, who also co-wrote another Sundance hit, HESHER. It's a classic gangster tale that's consistently pulling out surprises from up its sleeve. As the film started, I was convinced that this was a star vehicle for Joel Edgerton, who readers may remember as Uncle Owen in the STAR WARS prequels. Considering he was playing the most level-headed of the brothers, I was sure he'd end up as the conscience of the film, but less that half an hour in, he takes a shotgun blast to the head, and that's it for Edgerton.
Rather, the star of the film is young James Frecheville, as the teenaged Josh. In discussing this film with a few fellow critics, I was surprised to hear that some of them considered Frecheville to be the films' weak link. True, he does come across as pretty stiff, and thick-headed, but I think that's exactly the point. We find out all we need to know about the character from the opening shot of the film, where he's sitting on the couch watching some cheesy Australian game show, while a woman lays unconscious next to him. He barely acknowledges her, and when the paramedics arrive, we realize that the woman is actually his mother and she's over-dosed on heroin. Even as the paramedics are trying to save her life, Josh seems apathetic, with him still concentrating on the game show as him mom dies right in front of him.
I think Josh is a brilliantly constructed character, as it would seem that he doesn't care about what's going on around him, but, alas, appearances can be deceiving. The final scene of the film reveals his true nature, and it packs a serious punch.
He also makes an interesting contrast to the other star of the film, Ben Mendelsohn, who plays the insane Uncle Pope. Throughout the film, Pope seems on the verge of a meltdown, with him venting most of his frustrations on his weaker younger brothers, particularly the metro-sexual Darren (Luke Ford- who played Brendan Fraser son in the last MUMMY film)- who ends up on the receiving end of a memorable rant about bathroom etiquette. There's an incredible scene midway through the film where Pope sits on a couch watching the music video for Air Supply's 'All Out of Love' which is probably the single best use of music in film I've seen since the use of Duran-Duran's 'Ordinary World' in LAYER CAKE.
As for Guy Pearce, who's easily the most recognizable face in the cast, he more or less plays the straight-man to all the madness, similar to Gary Oldman as Gordon in BATMAN BEGINS, and THE DARK NIGHT (he even sports a similar 'nice-guy' mustache). Really, this is Frecheville, and Mendelsohn's show all the way, although Jacki Weaver as the relentlessly chipper Grandmother makes a huge impression towards the end, when she's revealed as a very Lady MacBeth-style figure.
ANIMAL KINGDOM really is an incredible film, and I hope it gets a theatrical release in North America. If any film out of the Sundance Film Festival deserves to be seen by a huge audience, this is it. Its a mean bastard of a film and one I imagine will be tough to beat in the months to come. This is probably the best film I've seen since THE HURT LOCKER.
Additional Sundance reviews: FROZEN - WELCOME TO THE RILEYS - SYMPATHY FOR DELICIOUS - BLUE VALENTINE - BURIED - HOLY ROLLERS - TUCKER AND DALE VS. EVIL - THE RUNAWAYS - HESHER- HIGH SCHOOL- JACK GOES BOATING- THE KILLER INSIDE ME - CYRUS - HAPPYTHANKYOUMOREPLEASE - NOWHERE BOY - MOTHER AND CHILD - GET LOW
CLICK IMAGE TO OPEN GALLERY & SEE MORE PICS...