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Help Me Get Away From Myself

By Brian Prisco | Film | August 17, 2010 |

By Brian Prisco | Film | August 17, 2010 |

Imagine running from a burning building in the middle of the night. You burst through some bushes and suddenly find yourself in the middle of the lion’s den at the zoo. Around you, some of the lions nap lazily on the rocks, while others sit and stare with that wide-eyed ferocity of the large cats. You freeze as questions gnaw the inside of your skull like these very beasts soon may be. Run? Stay still? When were they last fed? Do they give them flanks of raw steak or is it some sort of nutrient rich slurry? Are they domesticated or do they see humans as snacky cakes? The whole situation might very well be less harrowing if only one of the lions would instantly pounce and tear you asunder. But no, they sit, coiled, staring, perhaps 10 minutes, perhaps 10 years pass, and you are still frozen on the spot where you landed. These creatures aren’t going to rush it; they can kill you when they need to, outrun you should you flee.

Somehow David Michod manages to capture this murderously, leisure tension in the outstanding Aussie ensemble drama Animal Kingdom. Patience is a virtue, so if you can’t appreciate taut drama that spools out sparingly, enjoy Transformers 3: Electric Black Stereotypaloos. If you’re willing to savor your cinema, the carefully-constructed plot ponderously offers up some seemingly innocuous moments of pure cellulite cruelty fraught with tension. It’s not the kind of film that repeatedly goes off like a string of Chinese firecrackers every 10 seconds, but rather offers up astonishingly crisp subtext that will have you chomping through your knuckles.

It’s not exactly a Blue-Tongue Film, but it’s certainly done in the same spirit. You’ll get your car crashes and your headsplosions. Someone’s gonna die terribly and unexpectedly, and you might just have to wait until the entire film’s almost over before that happens, or it could happen in the first five seconds. The entire film courses like a live-wire, where you simply watch as these characters scheme and plot behind each others’ backs, and then sit down to a friendly family dinner, where everyone’s clutching knives beneath the tablecloth. It’s a very, very carefully paced film. There will certainly be filmgoers used to the more frenetic Monster Energy Drink soaked cutting and pacing of most crime stories. Our culture’s become so inured to eating McMeals that we don’t have the patience to appreciate a five-course feast anymore. And Animal Kingdom takes its fucking time.

The Cody family has never been up to any good. A gang of successful bank robbers, now trying to find their way in the world of Melbourne, are each pulling in separate directions, tethered only by familial bonds and anchored by their doting mother Janine (Jacki Weaver). Baz (Joel Edgerton) is a new father and the brains of the crew, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) is the slight psychotic hiding from corrupt cops, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is the drug dealing maniac who ratchets from zero to maniac in two seconds, and Darren (Luke Ford) is the baby of the family. Each find themselves storm tossed by their obligations to blood. Into this fracas falls poor Josh (James Frecheville), a teen who’s quickly swept up into the machinations of his criminal clan. The entire family slowly but surely begins to unravel, through infighting and murder, like sentient serpents acting out a Shakespearean play.

With the notable exception of Guy Pearce, the cast is mostly unknown to American audiences, though you’ll probably recognize them from a project here or there. To pick out a notable actor is almost beyond the point; the cast is an embarrassment of riches. Every member of the cast gets their moment to shine in Michod’s dazzling script, and they take it to the hilt. James Frecheville’s Josh stumbles dazed through the film — like an actual teen boy — as if they didn’t give him a script but just set him on fire and pointed him towards the deep end. This may sound like a criticism but watching Frecheville’s complete disarray is what makes Josh such a wonderful change from the norm. I can’t put into words how astonishingly good Jacki Weaver’s performance as the matriarch of the family is, because it’s giving away the entire effectiveness of the film. All the Cody boys are wonderful, though Ben Mendelsohn will actually make your soul ache as the nefarious Pope. This was also Laura Wheelwright’s first film, playing Josh’s girlfriend Nicky, which is like adding pop rocks to gasoline in this family. Also of note was Dan Wylie as the shady lawyer Ezra, a character from the early Blue-Tongue shorts.

To call Michod’s film a gangster flick or a crime drama takes away the potency of the family. To call it a coming-of-age story limits the rest of the family contributions. Animal Kingdom is packed with so much dense subtext and material, it’s almost overwhelming. The sheer weight of the film causes it to drag in parts, but this density is what sets off dynamite in the story. There are so many phenomenal scenes where we watch characters eat breakfast or sit on a couch watching television where every word is loaded like an elephant gun. But Animal Kingdom isn’t a sudden onslaught, but rather a slow, steady bleeding where everyone is doomed.

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