The Australian film Animal Kingdom won the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic World Cinema in 2010 and it is easy to see why it received such high praise for artistic quality, but as a film it is greatly overshadowed by a few magnificent performances, and though I love the attempt at a unique style of storytelling and a gritty, 'real' feel, the story as a whole didn't capture me the way I had hoped for when I first saw the trailer.
It was definitely a risk for the director to shoot in such a realistic manner, portraying the Cody family in its normal everyday routine as they go about their business of planning crimes and carrying them out. They are past their prime, it seems, as bank robbery is just too difficult compared to the past, and one member of the family contemplates getting out and dabbling in the stock market. There isn't a lot of stylized scenery of the 'bad guys' getting together in a warehouse to plan their capers, rather we see them walking around the house, having a drink, snorting coke, discussing what is next. This criminal family is in a battle with a corrupt police force and the blurry line is often crossed as we discover nobody can be trusted.
The opening scenes include voice over by the character 'J', who explains to us what we are about to see - his mother having overdosed on heroin. As a general rule I detest voice over, especially at the start of the movie, and especially when the cinematic approach taken in this film simply didn't require it! I felt everything the character was saying and the emotion I was supposed to feel was evident from the surroundings, characters, etc. It was very much a moment of me wanting to scream 'show don't tell!' I also had problems with the performance of James Frecheville, portraying the young J who is thrown into the underworld of crime his family has been a part of (without him) for many years. Perhaps it was the director's choice, but his mono-emotional and over-passive style simply did not work for me, and just once I would have liked him to be a normal teenager.
The film rises well above average thanks to 3 special roles.
1. Jacki Weaver plays 'Smurf', the Oedipal grandmother of J and matriarchal figure of the entire family. Her performance oozes of creepiness and power. As the strong protector of 'her boys' she not only knows the shady business they deal in she is a major part, yet at the end of the day she likes to give a much too lingering kiss on the lips to each. I will remember her performance for a long time as the quintessential two-faced monster who at one moment will shower you will love and at another put a gun to your head.
2. Guy Pearce as Detective Leckie is nuanced and complex. At no point can you tell what his motivations are nor where his thoughts will lead him. At one moment he may be the cop looking to take down the family through a series of manipulative maneuvers, and at another he may in fact be the one we should fear. I have always loved this actor and this role just helps to solidify that stance.
3. Ben Mendelsohn seals this film. As Andrew 'Pope' Cody you will have trouble finding such a terrifying look at a psychopath. One moment he is the father figure to family and friends encouraging them to speak to him and tell him things, and the other he is a savage beast capable of murder or worse. He weaves back and forth throughout the film in subtle ways that will scare you to death when you realize people like this exist in the world.
The film is shot with one too many long, drawn out scenes with musical backgrounds - the kind that make many people say 'that was too artsy' - yet I respect the attempt and some of the scenes really aid the film. I find it hard to put a number to the film because it clearly will not appeal to everyone, yet some will find it fascinating as a film to dissect. I'm comfortable with my opinion.