The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Animal Kingdom was for the “In Theatres” section of The Parallax Review.
by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor
Animal Kingdom is an Australian film that operates as a highly effective look at a dysfunctional family slowly destroying itself. The fact that the family is comprised of armed robbers, drug dealers, and psychopathic murderers is almost beside the point. This family, even if they strictly obeyed the law, never stood a chance of surviving in the dark world presented.
At the center of the story is Josh (James Frecheville), a seventeen-year-old who is orphaned after the death of his mother by heroin overdose. Josh’s grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver) takes him in. Janine is mother to three brothers who are all involved in various criminal enterprises. Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) is the oldest brother, an armed robber who specializes in violent bank holdups with his friend and partner-in-crime Barry (Joel Edgerton). Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is a drug dealer who has the bad habit of sampling his merchandise. Youngest brother Darren (Luke Ford) mostly sits back and waits for Barry or Pope to tell him what to do. When Josh enters their world, the brothers (with the exception of Craig) are keeping a low profile. A special squad has been set up in the Melbourne police department to take down violent armed robbers. The problem is, the special squad is just as violent as the criminals. When the police murder Barry in cold blood, Pope takes it as a declaration of war and Josh is sucked into his plans for revenge.
Writer-director David Michôd keeps a firm handle on the disparate personalities and nightmarish world that the film portrays. He maintains a tone of constant dread, using short bursts of brutal violence and unnerving performances to reinforce the sense of doom that hangs over all of the characters. He makes it clear that this is a nihilistic world where the police are trigger-happy thugs, the criminals are mentally unstable, and the only way to survive is to kill or be killed. The only point at which Michôd fails is in the presentation of Josh.
As played by Frecheville, Josh is a blank slate. He spends most of the film in a passive state, never getting angry or frightened. He takes as a routine fact that his family is comprised of violent criminals. He has a loyal girlfriend he professes to love, but he stares at her as though she were nothing more than a spot on the wall. Perhaps this portrayal is not Frecheville’s fault. As written, Josh is an enigma. He does and says things that refuse to follow any kind of logic. He makes half-hearted attempts to extract himself from the criminal life of his family, but never is particularly disappointed when those attempts fail. When it is finally revealed that he has a plan for survival, it’s almost too late to care because he has remained such an impenetrable character throughout the bulk of the film.
While Josh is a black hole when it comes to audience interest, the film provides two of the most frightening screen villains to come along in recent years. Pope starts out as a haunted man, hiding out from the police and feeling left behind by his more successful brothers. He initially seems like a pitiable character. But when his true murderous nature comes to light, there seems to be no end to the darkness in his soul. As played by Mendelsohn, he is an awkward sociopath who demands loyalty and usually gets it through the fear he instills in others. He’s a sickening creature whose depravity knows no limits. On the other side of the coin is Janine. With her overuse of makeup, she initially comes across as a caricature of a middle-aged woman trying in vain to hold on to her looks. But when her family becomes vulnerable, she drops her comic persona and exposes herself as a frighteningly pragmatic woman, capable of defending the casual sacrifice of individual family members for the good of the others. With each action she takes in the third act, she resembles a cold-blooded killer far more than the affectionate matriarch at which she plays.
If it had a more understandable character at its center than Josh, Animal Kingdom would be a great film. As it exists, it’s merely a good one. It’s a powerful look at the corrosive effects drugs, violent crime, and mental illness can have on an already fragile family. Unfortunately, Josh is too aloof to be interesting or sympathetic and the audience is not given another character to root for. The result is a film of harsh power that not only lacks any entertainment value, but also is also exceedingly unpleasant.
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