Sunday, June 13, 2010


Australia/2010/Directed by David Michod


Written and directed by the little-known David Michod, Animal Kingdom is the latest local film to come along that’s being touted as the saviour of Australian independent cinema. I’m always dubious when a film is hailed as such, but there’s no denying that Animal Kingdom is an engrossing and powerful crime film that puts the sex ’n’ drugs gloss dross of the last two series of Underbelly to shame (and if you go along to this film expecting it be an amped-up Underbelly, you’re bound to come away disappointed).

Set in Melbourne in the late-1980s, Animal Kingdom is loosely (but quite clearly) based on the life of infamous crime matriarch Kath Pettingill, whose clan of children (including sons Dennis Allen, Victor Peirce and Trevor Pettingill) created terror and mayhem as they ran amok across the city, dealing heroin, robbing banks and committing murders seemingly at will, until an incident involving the Armed Robbery Squad and the killing of Victor Peirce’s close friend and crime partner, Peter Jensen, led to the cold-blooded execution of two young police officers in a darkened street in South Yarra in 1988.

Following the overdose death of his mother, teenager Joshua ‘J’ Cody moves in with his grandmother Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody (Jacki Weaver) and is quickly sucked into the full-time crime lifestyle of her three sons - bank robber Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), wired drug dealer Craig (Sullivan Stapelton) and the na├»ve young Darren (Luke Ford), who has little options in life but to follow in his older brothers’ footsteps. When Pope’s best friend and crime partner, Barry (Joel Edgerton), who is sick of the lifestyle and plans to go straight, is shot dead by the police in cold blood, the Cody boys decide to get revenge by taking down two of the cops’ own. As tensions and paranoia within the family grow following the police killings, a senior homicide investigator (Guy Pearce) zeroes in on Joshua as the potential weak link who’s most likely to cave in and turn witness for the prosecution.

An true ensemble piece, Animal Kingdom is a slow burner, filled with an ominous atmosphere of continual tension, which occasionally erupts into moments of sudden, and often unexpected, bloody violence. The cast is uniformly top notch, from the experienced likes of Weaver (who’s face delivers a superb evil glare), Mendelsohn and Pierce to the relatively unknown Sullivan Stapelton. Even newcomer James Frecheville delivers the goods as the vapid, monosyllabic lost youth Joshua.

For the most part, the film delivers a genuine sense of Melbourne suburbia in the 1980s (I never thought I’d appreciate hearing Air Supply in a movie), although a few time-warp glitches appear throughout (people have tiny mobile phones and huge televisions, and I’m certain I spotted a rack of DVDs in the background during one scene). The film might also disorient any viewers who go in expecting a more accurate re-enactment of the facts, but these are minor quibbles in a film that might hopefully put Australian crime cinema back on the right, gritty character-driven track.

Copyright John Harrison 2010