ANIMAL KINGDOM (David Michod, 2010)
David Michod's debut film ANIMAL KINGDOM is an instant crime classic from the first frame. Teenager Joshua "J" Cody (James Frecheville) goes to live with his grandmother, Janine "Smurf" Cody (Jacki Weaver) after his mother, Smurf's daughter dies of heroin overdose. Living basically with his uncles, who all have a tainted history with the law, J quickly learns survival in a cruel world. He starts out as an observer first, but when you live with armed robbers and drug dealers, and a mother who tolerates them, you are unwittingly either an accomplice or a pawn.
A cold-blooded murder sets things in motion, and the sudden appearance of the eldest of Smurf's sons, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) becomes a test of loyalty for young J. When his uncles randomly murder two uniformed cops as retaliation, the police grills the whole family for a confession. The detective assigned to the case, Detective Senior Sergeant Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce) pays particular attention to J, knowing he is the easiest button to push. J is then faced with some serious decisions ahead, not to mention the complication of having his girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright) around.
The film's plot is cleverly described by the title itself. The family environment where J is forced to live in is a jungle, and while there is potential for the family members to become actual human beings, most often than not they act out as animals. The film's title and poster are complete giveaways. You'd readily know there is no happy ending to this morality tale. But who survives in the end?
Writer-director David Michod navigates this tale of crime with clever precision and enough levels of intensity to just have us guessing how the story will end. Five minutes before the credits I have my predictions, but they were not certain. It was right, though I did not have any way of verification, or I simply chose to ignore the signs. The film is that good in concealing motives and surprises.
Janine's transformation from a caring mother to a vicious animal is surprising, and intense. Jacki Weaver, with those eyes that could fool anyone of her motive, is compelling in her portrayal of Janine.
The film could use some more explanation on the cold-blooded shooting earlier mentioned, and a further peek at how Janine could wield the power that she has when she wants to, because by then we'd better understand how fucked up this family really is.
But aside from that, topnotch acting from all, especially that subdued turn as a cop by Guy Pearce. Frecheville is a revelation in that bathroom scene where he breaks down upon learning the tragedy that he may have caused.
Even the smallest parts are inspired performances. Nothing is overdone or underperformed.
There goes your deconstruction of the family as the basic unit of society.