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Socialism Today 145 - February 2011

Down underworld

Animal Kingdom

Directed by David Michôd

Certificate 15, 113 mins

UK release: 25 February

Reviewed by Michael Hering

ANIMAL KINGDOM is a gritty, in your face film about life in the criminal underworld. It is set in Melbourne, Australia, at a time when police corruption was running rampant and organised crime was very much in the public eye. It tells the story of four brothers, career criminals dealing in drugs and armed robbery, their mother, an extremely protective and utterly ruthless matriarch (played brilliantly by Jacki Weaver) and their nephew Josh (James Frecheville). He is in his last year of school, trying to navigate the obstacles that are thrown at him when he finds himself in the middle of a war between his uncle’s set-up and the police armed robbery squad.

The storyline is wholly believable. There are no Hollywood-style shootouts with fast action car chases and unrealistic escape scenes. The beauty of the movie lies in the drama that unfolds as each character is developed and more and more of their layers are revealed. The film keeps you guessing until the end and the plot takes a number of turns that emphasise both the darkness of the situation and the intelligence of the writing.

Animal Kingdom is unflinchingly Australian and this is no better displayed than by the brothers’ dry, sarcastic humour in the face of what seems to be an impossible, no-win situation. Having come after the incredibly popular Australian TV series, Underbelly – based on the actual events of the Melbourne underworld war (1995-2004) between two rival organised crime gangs – this fictional film leaves you with the feeling that it is all too real and could easily have happened.

Although it starts off slowly, the pace of the movie picks up fairly early on and gathers speed heading for the final conclusion. The characters of the four brothers are developed well. The eldest, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), becomes more violent and out-of-control as the war with the police unfolds. Barry, or Bazza (Joel Edgerton), decides that he has had enough and is determined to find a way out and start living a normal life. Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) starts falling apart when the war begins and is clearly the most emotionally unstable of the four, not least because of the copious quantities of cocaine that he takes. Meanwhile, the youngest, Darren (Luke Ford) is often in two minds about all that is happening around him. Against the background of the escalation in violence, he struggles with the knowledge that he has to choose sides, that there is no turning back.

Similarly, their nephew Josh, who is new to their world, only having moved in with them after the death of his mother, finds himself torn between siding with the police, on the one side, or with the only family he has left. On top of that, he becomes more and more aware of his growing feelings towards his girlfriend, who remains close to him at the start of his family’s feud with the police and even stands up for him against her own family when he has nowhere to stay.

Animal Kingdom is complex and gripping. You find yourself empathising with Josh and his uncle Darren, knowing that they are making decisions which they do not want to make and which are forcing them further down the road to nowhere. The main police character, Nathan Leckie, a detective (Guy Pearce), is a devoted family man who likes to play everything by the book. He also empathises with Josh, realising that he is in as much danger from his own police colleagues as he is from his unhinged uncle Pope. The movie illustrates how quickly bad decisions can ruin lives, how the lives of career criminals are by no means glamorous and how, at the end of the day, they are living in constant fear that it will all come undone. They live with the undeniable truth that it almost always does, one way or another.

Animal Kingdom won the world cinema grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year – as well as ten prizes from the Australian Film Institute. It is a must-see movie, one of those few you could see more than once and still thoroughly enjoy.


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