Criminal intent 

Animal Kingdom kicks up drama Down Under

The list of Australian-made films that have made it big in the United States is a short and rather eclectic one. If you can name three others after Mad Max, Babe, Gallipoli, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and, yes, Crocodile Dundee, I have a can of Fosters waiting for you. Sydney is a long way from Hollywood, and the Australian film industry is, of course, further hindered by the fact that their best actors (Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Hugh Jackman and pre-crazy train Mel Gibson) end up making most of their movies here.

What you'll notice about the aforementioned list of Australian crossover hits is that they either tend to focus on the country's unusually barren and alien landscape, or the Australian idiosyncrasies that we Americans find so endearing. In the case of Mick Dundee, we got a movie that focused on both, which probably explains why it spawned two horrible sequels.

Animal Kingdom is a modern-day crime drama set and filmed in Melbourne, but unless you're Australian you would never know it. It's a gritty and dour urban tale that could happen in almost any city but just happens to take place in Australia's second-largest metropolis. There are no cheap gags, no jokes about Australian stereotypes and not a single panning wide-shot of the outback's expansive scenery.

These aren't backhanded compliments, but rather pleasant observations from what has to be considered one of this year's best surprises. Indeed, I had never even heard of this film until a few weeks ago. Animal Kingdom won't be a box office hit in America—it's far too small and smart for that. But it's still the best family-crime story to come along in years, in this country or any other.

click to enlarge Welcome to the Bitterroot.
  • Welcome to the Bitterroot.

The family is called the Codys, who by all appearances are a middle-class group of criminals who dabble mostly in drugs but also the occasional armed robbery. This makes them a fairly big deal in a country mostly bereft of violent crime. The gang is comprised of three brothers—Pope, Craig and Darren—and Barry, a close family friend. They are led in no uncertain terms by Janine, the matriarch of the family, and a deliciously evil character. Janine (Jacki Weaver) is cunning, manipulative and just plain creepy: Her motherly adorations are borderline incestuous, which makes for more than a few uncomfortable moments.

Yet this "Godmother" is not Animal Kingdom's central character. That would be her 17-year-old grandson Joshua, who we meet in the film's first scene as he unemotionally watches his mother fatally overdose on heroin. Grandma—long estranged from her daughter—arrives to pick up a grandchild she has not seen in years. Joshua (James Frencheville), whether he wants to or not, is about to enter the family business.

This is Frencheville's first movie role, and perhaps only a newcomer could play the character of a completely overwhelmed and detached young man who appears in every scene to have just emerged from a coma. With blank stares and few words, Joshua is reacquainted with his uncles. He obviously is aware of the family business, but doesn't seem to care one way or the other. He is content to hang out with girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright) and nod when family members ask him to do things. He is an emotionally obliterated teenager, and who can blame him? It's a role played with similar nuance to that of Jennifer Lawrence as the 17-year-old caretaker Ree Dolly in the recent Winter's Bone.

Josh has entered the fray just as police surveillance of the family has heated up. Of particular interest to the authorities is the oldest brother Pope (Ben Mendolsohn), and before long Pope and his brothers have made themselves even more of a target. Josh, of course, is caught in the middle. The detectives want to make this family newcomer an informant before he becomes too entrenched. The first interrogation between the lead investigator (Guy Pearce, in a wonderful role) and Josh is one of the film's best and most suspenseful scenes. Even better are the increasingly suspicious looks Josh is soon getting from his own family members.

Very little proceeds conventionally and the twists are smart enough to keep the audience on edge for the latter third of the film. And did I mention Grandma is creepy? Her plots become only more diabolical as the movie progresses. Best of all, director David Michod maintains a suspenseful atmosphere without delving into melodrama. There is no glamorization of the criminal lifestyle, and what we're left with is a film about career thugs caught in a downward spiral. As a crime drama, Animal Kingdom compares favorably to the best episodes of "The Wire," and I can't really think of higher praise than that.

Animal Kingdom ends its run at the Wilma Theatre Thursday, Oct. 28.

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