Animal Kingdom

tn_animalkingdomThe cover for the upcoming American DVD of ANIMAL KINGDOM says “Australia’s answer to GOODFELLAS.” As if the U.S. released GOODFELLAS and said, “What say ye, Australia?” And Australia comes back, “Australia has no response to GOODFELLAS at this time.”

Twenty years pass, not a word. Suddenly, out of the blue, America’s phone rings.

“Thank you for calling America, how can I help you?”
“We have Australia on the line. Please hold.”
“Okay.”
“Hello?”
“Yes. This is America. To whom am I speaking, please?”
“Australia calling. We have prepared an answer re: GOODFELLAS. It’s called ANIMAL KINGDOM.”

That’s actually one of those unfair quotes, because really it’s just saying there are superficial similarities between the two movies, it’s not actually saying they’re at all equal in quality. But no matter what it actually says everybody responds the same way: “This guy says it’s as good as GOODFELLAS.” And no movie can live up to that kind of comparison, except arguably GOODFELLAS.

But I know what the guy meant. It’s about criminals, it has a bunch of first person narration at the beginning, he goes into witness protection at the end, he eats noodles. Very similar. But it’s a smaller, more modest story, much simpler. But very good.

mp_animalkingdomThe lead is J. Cody (James Frecheville), a teenager, kinda looks like the Australian Lucas Black, but with less emotion allowed to escape from his heart to his face. When his mom dies of a heroin o.d. he calmly calls his grandma (Jacki Weaver) asking what to do. Next thing you know he’s in Melbourne living with her and a house full of uncles that his mom deliberately kept him away from most of his life. See, they’re all criminals, and they’re constantly being followed around by the armed robbery squad, but don’t worry, those pricks won’t do anything. They just want the other uncle who’s hiding out somewhere else. They think.

J. tries to stay a good kid. He probly enjoys hanging out with these macho dudes, being one of them. They have a protective feeling toward him, and a fatherly obligation. One of them lectures him when he doesn’t wash his hands in the restroom. But he doesn’t seem seduced by their lifestyle. He’s pushed into pointing a gun at a dude in a traffic confrontation, and whatever feeling of power the experience gives him he does a good job of hiding it. I’m not sure how much he enjoyed it. I think he sort of liked it and sort of knew it was the beginning of some trouble. I gotta admit I enjoyed it though.

But of course J. gets pulled into things he wants no part of. The coolest uncle, the one that wants out of the life, of course is the one the vigilante cops decide to come down on MAGNUM FORCE style. So J gets stuck spending more time with the worst uncle (Ben Mendelsohn), has to take part in some crimes, gets his girlfriend into some bad situations, then gets arrested and questioned by the police, including Guy Pearce (now with mustache).

One thing that makes this different from other crime movies: a distinct lack of crime. It focuses on the family life and not any of the processes of their business. In fact, I’m not sure if it even specifically says what their main business is. I know there’s some drug selling but that seems to just be a side project.

One scene I really like is where his girlfriend (Laura Wheelright) brings him to stay at her house because his uncle just got murdered by the cops and he needs to hide out. At first the mom says absolutely not, she doesn’t want the boyfriend sleeping over, but the dad feels sympathetic toward J. when he hears (part of) the story. They seem very real, trying to be open-minded, understanding parents, but their daughter really doesn’t fully understand what she’s getting into here, so neither do these poor parents. Later, when J’s presence there endangers their family it just seems like a huge violation. You see this real normal suburban family, they never did nothing wrong, they’re just trying to be nice to this kid because they like him and they get royally fucked over. And he’s real sorry about it but they don’t even get an apology or an explanation from him. They just look at him in disbelief as the shit goes down.

There are lots of interesting characters here, I’ll point out two. Guy Pearce is the cop trying to get J. to testify against his family. You expect this type of character to be a liar, trying to trick him, or a blustery hothead type of guy making threatening speeches about how much trouble the kid is gonna be in if he doesn’t cooperate or whatever. No, this guy actually seems really nice and caring, and polite. It’s weird.

But the grandma is my favorite character. She seems like kind of a phony, with a phony smile, but J. says at the beginning that he thinks she just wanted to be with her boys, wherever they were. You get the idea she’d be there with them if they working as garbage men or as animators on HAPPY FEET 2 or anything. She just loves her boys unconditionally, and her husband is dead, and she likes hugs, so she’s there in the house taking care of them even though they’re a bunch of thugs. (SPOILER ALERT: RED/SEVERE – SEVERE RISK OF ME GIVING SHIT AWAY AND MAKING YOU REGRET READING THIS REVIEW IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE YET) But right about the exact moment that I was thinking she was a nice lady she turned around and started flying in the other direction. Like a boomerang.

(note to Australians: please don’t take that as condescending, my friends. I know it’s a lame Australian reference, almost as obvious as kangaroos or CROCODILE DUNDEE. And I remember what happened to those kids in WOLF CREEK after one of them started joking about CROCODILE DUNDEE. But you gotta understand, boomerangs are fucking awesome. You throw them and it hits a guy in the face and then it comes right back to you. That is fucking great. Also that part in MAD MAX 2 where it cuts the guy’s fingers off. Boomerangs fascinate us. They’re Australia’s answer to nunchakas or ninja stars. Take pride in your boomerangs. Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi oi oi!)

First time movie actor Frecheville is really good as this stonefaced, enigmatic kid. In fact, everybody’s really good in this. One guy I thought was particularly charismatic was Joel Edgerton, who plays Barry. I was kind of thinking this guy is really cool, he could be another big Australian export like Sam Worthington or Eric Bana.

edgerton1See, that’s the guy there, the cool uncle. And he looked familiar, I was trying to figure out what I’d seen him in before. Turns out he was in SMOKIN’ ACES, I apparently saw him in that. And he was the voice of the bad guy in GUARDIANS OF GAHOOLE. He’s in some upcoming movies, like the prequel to THE THING, and this possibly crazy movie called WARRIOR where Nick Nolte trains Tom Hardy to be an MMA fighter.

But also…

edgerton2

Oh shit! This guy was Luke Skywalker’s uncle, prequel edition. That’s gotta be where I recognized him from. Oh well. He’s grown up now. He’s been through alot. He made the owl movie and everything.

ANIMAL KINGDOM is not gonna replace your copy of GOODFELLAS, but I think the two can co-exist peacefully, even if ANIMAL KINGDOM is just a little baby being carried around in GOODFELLAS’s marsupial pouch. But it’s a really top-to-bottom well made movie by rookie writer/director David Michôd. Good job, Australia.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 1st, 2010 at 4:51 am and is filed under Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

33 Responses to “Animal Kingdom”

  1. As an Australian, it’s quite rare to see a locally produced film that’s really worth a damn, however this flick stands as one of the years best… from any country.

    Vern another great Australian film worth your time, The Loved Ones. Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but definitely worth seeking out.

  2. Chopper is Australia’s answer tt Goodfellas.

  3. I hate the “The _______ answer to ________” tagline. Especially here in Germany it’s fucking overused. Everything here is the answer to anything, from “Roland Emmerich is the German answer to Spielberg” to “Shitmovie XY* is the German answer to Pulp Fiction”.

    *Not an actual movie title.

  4. Damn, I really wantwed to see Shitmovie XY! While we’re on the subject of German movies, could you tell me if Mord ist mein Geschäft, Liebling is worth checking out? It has both Franco Nero and Bud Spencer in, I guess, cameos. I’m sorry about the sidetrack, Vern.

  5. I haven’t seen it, sorry. And everything from the cast to the director points to “pretty generic”, although I won’t rule out the possibility that it might be entertaining nonetheless. Sorry that I can’t help you. If I remember right, it’s running on TV during the upcoming holidays. I might check it out then.

  6. I don’t know gents. none of these movies talked about sound that appealing to me this morning. The blizzard we are in is making me so depressed though that I might go out and check out one or two of them.

    snow, snow, go away, come again another day.

  7. I think the coolest uncle was the coolest uncle because he wasn’t an uncle……just a family friend…..thats why he was coolest…..and not so mental. He was the probably the only chance of anything good happening with that fucked up family …cause he wasnt part of it.

  8. He wasn’t the coolest uncle in Star Wars. All he wanted to do was keep Luke from going to Toshi station for some power converters…

  9. Not only that, he wanted Luke to stay home another year to help with the moisture harvest.

  10. I love crime movies, but if there’s one subgenre I’m absolutely sick of, it’s the mafia movie. I haven’t seen ANIMAL KINGDOM, and it sounds like maybe it doesn’t stick too closely to formula, but it’s still a tough sell for me. I mean, everyone was raving about GOMORRAH last year, and I found it to be a dull, obvious collection of mob movie cliches.

    America loves gangsters, I get it. I just don’t share that same obsession. It’s not that I can’t enjoy a good mafia movie, but in a world that already has THE GODFATHER, GOODFELLAS, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, THE SOPRANOS and THE WIRE, I feel like we’ve already said everything that needs to be said about organized crime, and we can move on.

  11. The original Paul

    December 1st, 2010 at 10:19 am

    CJ Holden – “Shitmovie XY” not an actual movie title? Are you kidding me? That’s an absolute badass classic!

    I may look out for “Animal Kingdom”, although they may be doing it a disservice by comparing it to Goodfellas (yet another of the universally well-regarded movies that I couldn’t get into at all. Seriously, I can’t watch mafia movies. I don’t think I’m capable of it.) I liked “The Town”, which hopefully proves a better comparison.

    Just seen Machete, FINALLY. Not sure if it was worth the wait, but yeah, it’s pretty good. Suffers a lot from weak villain syndrome, and Jessica Alba proves she can’t play badass, which is a real problem at a couple of points. Michelle Rodriguez proves that she can ONLY play badass, which is just fine by me. Trejo is good, but I’m not sure he can carry off a movie. Cheech Marin is criminally underused (and why the fuck can’t Robert Rodriguez let him survive an entire movie? Just once?) The main villain’s church confessional thing p–sed me off quite a bit. It should come with an alert saying “stupid plot contrivance.”

    Also – and I have to say this also annoyed me – what the fuck was up with the final action sequence? It’s like a laundry-list of everything that’s been complained about on this forum about bad action sequences. No sense of geography – check. (Seagal just appears. Where the hell did he come from? How did he get in?) Overuse of shakycam – check. Avid farts – check. (How many times were shots sped up / slowed down for no apparent reason?) Stopping the action suddenly for main characters to pose / look awesome – che-e-e-eck. And how the hell was a Steven Seagal / Danny Trejo fight with freakin’ swords so incomprehensible? We barely see anything of what happens, the camera constantly cuts away whenever strikes are attempted.

    (By the way, I blame you guys for me even noticing any of this stuff. If it wasn’t for the endless debates on this forum about what makes a good action sequence, none if it would probably have occurred to me. So thanks a lot for ruining the movie for me, assholes!)

    In conclusion – it’s not as good as the Internet says it is. But it’s still pretty good. It has an intestine rope-swing and sexy nurses with machine guns, which excuses a lot. But with the exception of De Niro’s aide (who is great), none of the villains really do anything. Seagal and Alba can’t carry their roles, and Trejo doesn’t quite have the range to carry the film. I’m inevitably going to be the last person on this forum who sees this film, since it took two and a half months to make it into cinemas over here; but if anybody else hasn’t seen it, it gets a cautious recommendation from me. It’s a fun time at the movies, just don’t expect it to change the world.

  12. I’m with CJ on the hatred of “____ is the ____ answer to _____” or “it’s like ____ on drugs” and those kinds of taglines. But I perversely love the mashup taglines, where a movie is described as being like 2 other movies. “It’s like TERMS OF ENDEARMENT meets

  13. …GUINEA PIG”

    Wow, didn’t mean to submit that one yet. Anyways, we need more of those taglines.

  14. I thought UNDERBELLY was Australia’s answer to Goodfellas, albeit as a TV show? I’ve never watched it, but it’s apparently a) based on a true story b) about gangsters and c) spans multiple decades.

  15. Count me in as a guy who loves crime stories but hates gangsters. I like regular ol’ crooks, not mobsters. “Organized crime” sounds an awful lot like work to me.

  16. So is Joel Edgerton getting typecast as an uncle?

  17. Majestyk,

    ““Organized crime” sounds an awful lot like work to me.” Love it, I’m going to have to remember that one.

    I think part of my problem is I don’t find the whole enterprise as romantic or seductive as a lot of people do. I don’t find the rituals or the power structure of the mafia inherently interesting or appealing. One of the things I dug about THE SOPRANOS is the way is deliberately tried to deconstruct a lot of the romanticized ideas American culture (thanks to THE GODFATHER) has about the mafia, and simply tried to show them as ugly, shitty human beings.

  18. The “real work” thing is probably why Parker isn’t part of any outfit. In the books, he seems to spend 60% of the year just relaxing with his wife, 25% setting up and carrying out the jobs, and the rest chasing down the partners who betrayed him/dealing with squealers/escaping the law.

  19. Vern, if you liked this, I recommend THE HARD WORD with Guy Pearce and Joel Edgerton – it’s a corking sort-of-funny Aussie crime movie.

    Brilliant 70sish wakka-wakka crime score too.

  20. This is one of my favorite movies of 2010. I’m talking top 5, and I’ve seen about 180 releases from 2010 so far. Vern, you should check out THE SQUARE, directed by Nash Edgerton, Joel’s brother. It’s a slow burn noir type of deal that’s really well done. Kinda reminded me of BLOOD SIMPLE.

    Dan – this isn’t a mafia movie. It is a “crime film”, but it has way more to do with the family dynamic and the boy –> man arc of the protagonist than the surface details of their criminal activities. And I was also not too hot on GOMORRAH, I thought it was kind of bloated and all over the place plotwise. I liked the segment about the two young hotheads, but some of the other stuff dragged. And it was overshadowed by the far superior (IMO) IL DIVO: same year, same country, same genre… and a way better film even if it didn’t get a Criterion release.

  21. This movie is NOTHING like Goodfellas – shame on that quote, even if just to sell tickets/copies. The ONLY possible way it could come even close to comparison is so far this is one of Australia’s good ‘crime family’ films. Except this crime family isn’t made up of hotshot gangsters with piles of money and women and power and nice cars living it up somewhere…

    It’s a family of 5 derelict (read: ‘Derro’ in Oz) criminals living in a house in Melbourne who, if weren’t making money illegally would be on the dole or something. Nothing glorious or glamorous about these people at all.

    That said, it’s a great movie. But if you’re expecting a big crime caper you’ll be disappointed. It’s a very intimate film, big in story, emotion & character but small in scale. Well worth a watch no matter where you’re from.

    Mac – If you’re depressed, even if just cuz of a blizzard, I strongly recommend you don’t watch Animal Kingdom for fear you might fall into a coma.

    Stu – Underbelly sucks cock compared to Animal Kingdom. It’s a TV show that tries to put a bit of glitz on the Australian Crime Family, of which, there just isn’t any IRL!

    Vern – Your ‘boomerang’ peice suggested you like to be culturally sensitive. In which case, it’s “Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi!” :D

  22. Gwai,

    Thanks. I guess I’m just succumbing to the GOODFELLAS comparison. I’ll keep an open mind on this one.

  23. If PorkChopExpress hadn’t said it, I would have. Not that I’m sure there’s an official sanctioned way of spelling it, but “Oi” is the preferred way.
    I feel unpatriotic in that I haven’t seen “Animal Kingdom” or “The Square” yet. I guess I better do something about that soon.

  24. I thought it was “oi” but when I put it into google a bunch of “oye”s came up. Didn’t seem right to me either. I’ll fix it.

  25. This is the single best movie of 2010. I doubt anything else will top it for me. And yes, as a previous poster said, “The Square” is almost as good. With those two flicks plus “The Disappearance of Alice Creed” and “Lake Mungo”, this has been a helluva year for Aussie cinema.

  26. This movie has really stuck with me, particularly the scene with the kid and the gun and the line “Tell them who’s king.” It’s stuck with me more than The Square, for example, because my strongest feeling from that movie was in regards to that poor lovestruck dog.

    Luke Mungo was pretty great too. I keep seeing that face.

  27. I also really liked LAKE MUNGO. Creepy, ’twas. But isn’t THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ALICE CREED a British flick? Haven’t seen it yet. I did see VAN DIEMENS LAND though… a bit sparse on plot, but another really well made Australian movie from recent memory.

  28. I didn’t see this (i’m a bad Aussie) but Underbelly was horrible

  29. I saw this movie without knowing anything about it it and it hit me like a sucker punch to the gut. In many ways it feels like a gritty, small scale, real world version of THE GODFATHER. Both movies are engrossing tales about families that make their living outside the law, and they both focus more on family dynamics then the crimes they commit. They also both are about a son who is somewhat an outsider trying to find his place within in the family. However, unlike THE GODFATHER, ANIMAL KINGDOM does not glamorize the criminal lifestyle. It is unflinching in it’s portrayal of how violent and dangerous the world this family of bank robbers live in really is.

  30. Just caught up with this one. Not bad. The Australian Goodfellas? Nah. The Australian At Close Range, I could agree with.

  31. Just watched this one. Fantastic picture. I will speak freely of the film regardless of SPOILERS. And I have posted here a few times and haven’t totally lost credibility as far as I can tell, so maybe I can rectify that with the blasphemy herein:

    -Both of the heads of family (granny Smurf and Pope) absolutely made my skin crawl. Granny always has this “told-ya-so” smirk on her face, even when she’s consoling her kids about the death of their friend/brother/whatever Barry was. She tells the story of why she wasn’t on speaking terms with Jay’s mom for years before her death, and her perspective is not “it was stupid of me to hold such a grudge over a dumb argument” but basically that the mom shouldn’t have held an incorrect opinion on the rules of a card game.

    -Pope is one of these great archetypal criminals who is just destined to fuck himself over with his paranoia, arrogance, and sociopathy. A lot of this stuff is very subtle and implicit and I might be overinterpreting, but consider the scene where he is baiting one of the uncles saying “are you gay? just tell me!” And then a few scenes later he’s checking out Jay’s dick in the shower. He’s the sort of dude who would be gay, repress it, and then kill you because he’s decided you’re gay even though you’re not, you know what I mean? And I don’t necessarily think he was gay, or that it’s important, because he’s not really a sexual person; he considers raping Jay’s girlfriend but it’s just because he knows he’s not supposed to do that shit, and this gets him worked up into an indignant rage of how DARE the world tell him he can’t do something he considered doing?

    -These people (Smurf and Pope) are the sort of fucks of whom you could never get any vengeful satisfaction, especially Smurf, I mean all you could do was make her feel like a self-righteous martyr. But that’s why Jay was the perfect protagonist for the film: he’s so stoic, unobtrusive, and passive that once he starts taking action in last stretch of the film, you completely believe the impact his actions have. The last shot where he embraces Smurf is absolutely stunning and probably the best victory that could be attained upon the matriarch.

    Erm, blasphemy on post 2…

  32. And okay, guys, just because GoodFellas was a movie you grew up with and rocked serious ass does not mean that it’s above criticism and that it should be taken for granted that no movie about criminals could possibly be better than it. GoodFellas is a fantastic example of kinetic filmmaking, charismatic narrative that immediately yanks you into the picture, awesome era-spanning soundtrack, etc. But it’s a silly, cartoony thing compared to Animal Kingdom. For example, Pope is similar to the Pesci character in his sociopathic sense of entitlement, but you aren’t actually AFRAID of Pesci, it’s just fun to watch him. GF is this whole circular tirade of the inevitability of somebody thinking you should get whacked, Animal Kingdom almost can’t help but be better by virtue of the fact that it takes for granted that you already realize that, doesn’t feel the need to lecture you about it, and simply lets the grim inevitabilities sink in. (and also can pull a crazy trick on you like NO you are not safe in witness protection).

    Don’t get me wrong I hella like GoodFellas, have seen it hella times, and would rather watch it again than sitting through the much slower and more mundane Animal Kingdom again. GF more fun and glamorous, and yeah Scorcese knows how to frame and edit with a wallop, but I think Departed indicates that even Scorcese realizes that GF is kinda dated. To act like “well of COURSE it’s not as good as GoodFellas” is a weirdly dogmatic perspective that I just don’t understand. To me the crime genre was always partially about educating the viewer, giving them a glimpse into a world that is fun to speculate on but that you don’t really know how it would work, so they naturally improve on one another because you don’t have to go back and explain that family is important because you’ve already seen The Godfather, and you don’t need to explain that somebody is going to think you should get whacked because you’ve already seen GoodFellas, and you don’t need to explain that the matriarchs/patriarchs are total fucking sociopaths because you’ve already seen The Sopranos.

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