Saturday, January 29, 2011

Criminal Elements -- Reflections on "Animal Kingdom" (2010)

"Give Us a Kiss, Sweetie."

Tolstoy said that all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. Truer words could not be applied to the film Animal Kingdom, an Australian crime film from director David Michôd.

Animal Kingdom tells the story of Joshua "J" Cody (James Frecheville), who is reintroduced to his extended family after the drug overdose death of his mother. His family is a gang of bank robbers and drug dealers in various states of trouble with the local authorities. After the murder of his uncle Barry (Joel Edgerton) by the police, the family -- led by his uncle Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) -- get revenge by murdering two officers. J finds himself in over his head as he deals with family suspicions, police interrogations, and his budding awareness of just how small and inconsequential he is in the scheme of things.

What makes this film an excellent crime thriller are the character actors comprising the family. Most notable is Jacki Weaver, who plays Janine "Smurf" Cody, the matriarch of the clan who comes across as a sweet, saccharine old lady. She is hands on with her boys, frequently kissing each square on the mouth, and acting as if she has little to no knowledge of the criminal lives they lead. At first Weaver's performance seems to be of background importance -- she's just a kooky part of the setting that grounds the family -- yet in the movie's second half she erupts like a volcano and reveals a character more shrewd than we could ever have expected.

Weaver's is not the film's only excellent performance. Mendelsohn's work as uncle Pope is unpredictable and frightening. He's introduced as the family's wild card, the one the police are really after, but that's not nearly enough to prepare us for what he's really made of. His eyes are reptilian, his body movements slithery, yet his voice is smooth and seldom ruffled despite the most trying of events.

Crime films are usually filled to the brim with overcooked heist plots, or gangster garbage. The best crime films spend time with the characters, giving us time to know them, sympathize with them, or completely fear them. Yet, these characters -- no matter how great -- are usually separated from society. They live in a world we don't know, and can't completely relate to. Animal Kingdom does a great job of stripping the conventional settings of these films, allowing us to see how a criminal family functions in society. J has a girlfriend and he hangs out with her typical suburban family. Before Barry's death we get to see how he and his wife try to fit in. Janine spends time with her next door neighbor. And both the cops and the criminals shop at the same supermarket.

Crime happens all around us, not just in some exclusive world where everyone packs a 9 mm and plots against each other. This film makes it clear that we're already in the middle of other people's badness, whether it be the drug dealer operating low-key in the apartment next door, or the teenager down the block planning to rob a local liquor store with his buddies. Most of us spend our time acting just like Janine in the first half of the film, merrily oblivious. Of course, that's a good thing.

Check out Animal Kingdom, now available on DVD/Blu-ray.

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