“You know what the bush is about? It’s about massive trees that have been standing there for thousands of years… And bugs that’ll be dead before the minute’s out. It’s big trees and pissy little bugs. And everything knows its place in the scheme of things.”
As far as feature film debuts go, you could a lot worse than writer / director David Michod. When I wrote about The Rover, his second movie, I had to set it in context with his freshman effort, Animal Kingdom. I said, “To be an Australian whose debut movie gets Oscar attention is all but unheard of.” While I’d seen Animal Kingdom when it first came out and while I really liked it, I never felt compelled to see it again. But when I was recently on a plane and saw it on the in the in-flight entertainment, and having also just seen and loved The Rover a few weeks prior, I had to revisit Animal Kingdom.
Josh “J” (James Frecheville) is sitting on the couch next to his dead mother, watching Deal or No Deal. When the paramedics arrive, we learn she’s died of a heroin overdose. Alone, J resorts to calling his estranged grandmother (Jacki Weaver in her Oscar nominated role as Janine ”Smurf” Cody). Soon, J is brought into her fold, along with his several bank robbing uncles. There’s Joel Edgerton as the cool headed Barry, Sullivan Stapleton as the cocaine fuelled loose cannon Craig, Luke Ford as the fresh faced, Darren, and Ben Mendelsohn as the sociopathic Andrew, AKA “Pope”.
When J first comes in contact with his uncles, they’re doing their best to lay low after robbing one too many banks and gaining a little too much attention from crooked cops who have made it all too clear that that they intend on killing Pope on sight, with the plan to cover it up as an arrest gone bad. As Pope goes into hiding, Barry tries to keep the rest of the family under control. Once Barry is the one to catch a bullet from the vengeful cops, Pope emerges from hiding to take leadership of his family, and his lust for revenge sucks everyone into despair. All while J is targeted as the weak link to be exploited by Guy Pearce as Detective Senior Sgt Nathan Leckie.
Jacki Weaver may have received the Oscar nod, but Animal Kingdom is all Ben Mendelsohn’s movie. He doesn’t appear for the first half hour or so, but even then, the mythical nature of his character weighs heavy on the story. Then, once he does appear, he makes whatever horrifying image of Pope you may have already built in your head, immediately pale in comparison to the reality. Andrew “Pope” Cody is one of the great ruthless sociopaths in cinema.
And while it could never live up to Mendelsohn’s performance, James Frecheville gives it a pretty good go in the central role of J. For a lot of the movie, I found his mopey, blank expressions tedious and one note. But once he does break down and starts to feel the true weight of everything happening around him, I realised that all of that blank mopiness was totally necessary to make that breakdown hit as hard as it does.
As in every Australian movie about crime, there are a few moments of middle class acting school graduates doing their best to pretend they’re tough as nails, blue collar crims from the wrong side of the tracks. But the subtle quietness of Edgerton and completely believable ever simmering rage of Mendelsohn more than make up for those moments.
The best thing about revisiting Animal Kingdom was seeing how well it holds up. Too often, Oscar level movies of one year seem so pedestrian and ho-hum the next. But Animal Kingdom may have had a bigger impact on me this time around than it did on the original viewing. Knowing what was coming just made Pope all the more threatening and J all the more tragic.