Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Animal Kingdom

A few months back, DirecTV was running a free weekend of Sundance and some other channels, and one of hte movies I got the chance to see for the first time was Animal Kingdom, a 2010 film from Australia not to be confused with the 1932 Leslie Howard film The Animal Kingdon. It's running again in the wee hours of tomorrow morning, at 4:40 AM on Starz (if you get both the east coast and west coast feeds, you'll have a chance to see it at 7:40 AM ET as well).

The movie starts off with a scene that's both prosaic and disturbing. Teenager Joshua Cody (James Frecheville), nicknamed J, is sitting on a couch in some suburb of Melbourne, Australia, watching some mindless game show on TV. Next to him is his mother -- who's just died of a drug overdose. Dad's nowhere to be found, so J calls his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver), nicknamed "Smurf", and asks her for advice. That advice includes moving in with her. After all, it's not as if he's got any place else to go.

J moves in to an extended family. In addition to Grandma, there are three of her sons, or J's uncles, who always seem to be around: younger brothers Darren and Craig, and older brother Andrew (Ben Mendelsohn), nicknamed "Pope". Also around a lot is their friend Barry Brown (Joel Edgerton), nicknamed "Baz"; he, however, has a wife of his own. The four of them are a criminal gang of a sort that's never quite fully explained. Grandma, depending on your point of view, is either a Mildred Pierce type: she's simply spoiled her kids to the point that they've gotten in a very bad way; or, she might be like Raymond Shaw's mother in The Manchurian Candidate, actually being the lynchpin on the plot.

It's always a dangerous time to be part of a criminal gang, but the atmosphere of the movie makes it even more dangerous. For reasons that are again not quite fully explained, the police have begun to take the law into their own hands. Instead of just arresting the putative bad guys, they actually ambush one in a grocery store car park and shoot him in cold blood! This causes the brothers to want to gain revenge, in a plot which involves stealing a car, abandoning it in a suburb, and then shooting the police who come to investigate. The plot also involves J, who is expected to hotwire the car for his uncles.

And so J has been sucked into the criminal gang, although he's still a minor. The police are investigating, and J's being a minor gives the chief investigator, Det. Leckie (Guy Pearce) some leverage. Further complicating things is that J has found a girlfriend in the form of Nicky (Laura Wheelwright). J faces a very tough situation. Obviously, he doesn't want to go to prison, and to that effect it might just be best to lawyer up and not answer any of the police questioning. And he might want to live something resembling a normal life, or at least as normal as you can approach after his chaotic upbringing. But he's also got a family full of criminals who eventually show that they're willing to use discipline to keep people in line.

Animal Kingdom is a gripping story with a lot of twists and turns. What I've outlined above is mostly the first half of the film; I want to avoid giving too much in the way of spoilers. The acting is generally quite good. Frecheville as the lead generally portrays an atmosphere of somebody who thinks he's in invincible teenager, but at heart really wants to be detached from everybody else. Mendelsohn as the more depraved uncle, and Weaver as the grandmother are especially chilling at times. Guy Pearce was probably the biggest name in the cast at the time the movie was made, but his role is more of a supporting role, which he performs well enough. Ultimately, though, Animal Kingdom rests on the strength of its story depicting one mightily screwed-up family.

Animal Kingdom did get a DVD release which you can find on Amazon (including an "Instant video" version), but I'm not certain if the hard-copy DVD is still in print, since I couldn't find it at the TCM Shop.

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