Over the years the Australian film industry has produced a particularly striking set of gritty and engaging films (from Mad Max to The Proposition). This year sees Australian short film director David Michôd burst into the world of feature films with the crime drama Animal Kingdom, which won the World Cinema Jury Prize for Best Dramatic Film at the Sundance Film Festival.
This tale of a crime family in meltdown has lead some critics to compare it to The Godfather. However while the films may bear some slight narrative semblance Animal Kingdom, set in the sweltering Melbourne underworld, tells a tale that is far more tragic and absurd.
Josh aka J (James Frecheville) loses his mother to a heroin overdose and with no one else to turn to he moves in with his extended family, comprised of his grandmother and four uncles. The uncles all operate as criminals and seem to live with a great respect and dependence for their mother (Jacki Weaver), who bizarrely insists that they kiss her on the mouth. When one of the uncles is killed by police the family wreak their revenge and consequences follow suit. The naive J finds himself and his girlfriend in the middle of the chaos as his unhinged heroin addict uncle ‘Pope’ (Ben Mendelsohn) begins to call the shots.
Things become even more complicated when J is called in for questioning by the police and gradually develops a rapport with Detective Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce). The family recognise that it is J who is putting them in the most danger and when ‘Pope’ is imprisoned J’s grandmother becomes the last person he can trust.
The cast bring the group of colourful characters to life with great aptitude and Michôd’s taught and creative direction tells the story with masterful suspense and subtle humour. It would be easy to relate this film to American crime classics but this would not do justice to this distinctly Australian production.
Watching the film one gets the sense that Michôd had done his research to create a realistic portrayal of the Melborne crime landscape; the characters all feel like natural developments of this setting. It is this brilliantly creative approach to time and place that makes Animal Kingdom such a fresh addition to the Crime Drama genre, though it also seems that this time and place are the reason for such tragedy in peoples lives.