I’m catching up here. Animal Kingdom, the much-praised Melbourne-set crime drama, came out here in February, and I missed it for some reason. It’s out on DVD in July. And it really is as good as you’ve heard. Not every family-based crime saga should be compared to The Godfather – it isn’t fair! – and anyway, this is contemporary, and far more low-key and hand-held and mostly contained within a couple of locations. It put me more in mind of Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah. It certainly does for Melbourne what that film did for Naples, which is to belie tourist board perception and show that under the surface of any city, a netherworld of wrongdoing and violence seethes.
Having swept the board at the Australian Film Institute awards last year (ten wins out of 18 nominations for just about everybody involved in it), Animal Kingdom is an amazing calling-card for first-time writer-director David Michôd, whose funding wasn’t harmed by the genre itself, or by Guy Pearce’s name on the dotted line. I was writing about this very subject in last week’s Radio Times: it’s great how Australian and New Zealand actors go to Hollywood to achieve fame, often after years of slogging it out on daytime soaps, then return to their homeland to add their weight to smaller, homegrown movies. This is why Australian cinema is currently enjoying a quiet renaissance, I think. There’s even a link to Australia’s first wave of the 1970s, as Jacki Weaver, who plays the Cody family’s touchy-feely-double-crossy matriarch, was in Picnic At Hanging Rock, one of the films that first put the national cinema out there in the world.
It starts with a death, at home, coolly and stoically dealt with, and we begin to meet the Cody family: one grandmother, three sons, one surrogate son, and one grandson, previously estranged, the 17-year-old “J” (a debuting James Frecheville, star of tomorrow). “The boys” are not crimelords or kingpins, but working suburban crims, on the edge of psychopathy but not full-blown monsters. Except, perhaps, for “Pope”, the inscrutable eldest (Ben Mendelsohn), who seems capable of anything, and whose taunting of his youngest brother for being “gay” in the family kitchen is a tour de force of passive aggression. The middle brother, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton, very much in the Russell Crowe mould, physically) is a loudmouth thug who goads a waitress by smoking in a restaurant, but is oddly attractive and surprisingly vulnerable.
Joel Edgerton, who plays the friend, Baz, whose plan is to put the criminal life behind him and go into stocks and shares (I think it’s set in the 1980s, but you can’t tell with Australian men’s haircuts), is an actor I already rate as he essayed a pretty impressive Northampton accent in the Northampton-set Kinky Boots (I didn’t even know he was an Aussie at the time – Star Wars geeks will know him as the young Owen Lars). He and his brother, ex-stuntman Nash, also make films together and are, it seems, a key part of the Aussie renaissance. (I haven’t seen their noir The Square, but would really like to.)
Animal Kingdom is a brooding film. It’s hot and dry, as per the setting, and people wear vests and t-shirts and shorts, or, like Craig, walk around the house topless. Doors and windows are left open. You really get the feeling of a natural home life from the way the actors interact. I don’t know if they actually lived together, maybe they did, but the milieu is utterly convincing. The mood is effortless. The lighting is artificial and queasy throughout, whether indoors or out. There’s even a barbie, but even that’s shot through with discomfort and the bonhomie is not Ramsay Street. This is a stylish film without being stylised. It’s right up there in terms of recent Aussie cinema with Lantana and Jindabyne.
The music, all synth wash and sustained chords for creeping unease and rising dread – especially for “J”, who goes through many changes – works like a dream. Antony Partos is the man to congratulate for that. But at the end of the day, it’s the sum of the parts that makes Animal Kingdom such a knockout. The violence is shocking and casual, but it’s not in your face, it’s not there to shock with buckets of blood; in fact, it shocks for the very lack of melodrama and thriller cliche. Oh, and star-name Guy Pearce brings the quiet, naturalistic, unshowy authority you’d expect.
I can’t recommend it more highly. This and Meek’s Cutoff have been my favourite films of 2011 so far.