Monday, January 31, 2011

Review: Animal Kingdom

17 year old Josh is sitting by his sleeping mother watching a game show. A moment later a pair of paramedics arrive and treat mum for a heroin overdose.Cut to Josh on the phone to his nana who will come to pick him up and place him in the family nest. Then we get an opening credit sequence which is a series of stills of armed robberies taken by security cameras and has a very odd family album quality to it.

If you haven't guessed by these few screen minutes that you are in for a dive into the underworld, Australian style then it's back to rom coms with you. I was enticed by the opening and its immediate strengthening in the scenes of the first act. The writing and playing and masterful use of the wider, scope image completely absorbed me. But then things started to feel wrong.

The portrayal of family life works because it is afforded its own nature by the film and allowed some give. There is no apparent contradiction in the dangerously psycho Uncle Pope lifting Josh's girlfriend from an awkward slumber on a couch to Josh's bed. It's caring and parental. As is a later sequence when he dispatches a character with the same gentleness. Otherwise he is manipulative and dead eyed, a criminal from birth. Ben Mendelsohn is powerfully eerie in this role and it's almost shocking to behold him so. That goes for Jackie Weaver as Smurf, the mother. Her gentle joy at being so essential and close to her sons' power is expressed the same way as if they were all careerist architects, bankers or doctors. Her cheer seems pleasingly surreal in this milieu until the moment see fixes the detective on the family's tail in her gaze. Her voice is sweet but if you went to the shark tank at the aquarium and it caught your eye from its gelid blue realm you would see the same look that Weaver gives Guy Pearce. This is a family of violent self preservation and predation but it is a family. The final moment of the film is a chilling affirmation of that.

So, why, if these elements are so good and freshly delivered, did this film disappoint me? Two reasons. First and worst is the saggy middle act. There is a lot of procedure, criminal and police and then legal which I didn't need to see to know about. The feel is that each scene seemed cut to length and the result was too even, too samey. When critical points appeared like the treacherous demise of one of the brothers it seemed to flare up from nowhere despite the film's hard work setting up the fateful nature of the story. The pity is that the scene itself is so strongly performed that I almost feel guilty saying it but I wanted it to be over in the period made standard by the other scenes. What should have seemed both inevitable and powerful felt tacked on.

The second reason has to do with the choice of Josh as the story's focal point. We hear his narration from the get go and the tale increasingly points to him for its central referencing. That saggy middle with all its procedural completism loses touch with him as police and crims go about their tough guy work. If the latter were told with less of the grim verite that the family scenes are impressively given the story, quite literally, would be different. This is all threaded back for the final act which plays out with an intimidating power but by then the feeling is one of having lived through a long rather than powerful film.

Also, there is a problem with the casting. I know Josh is 17 from the beginning. James Frecheville plays him with an utterly appropriate monosyllabic grunt and deferential downward look. He acts like a teenager constrained but ready to explode into his violent birthright. He just doesn't look like one. He looks like a 25 year old who has spent the last five years living in a gym. I know teens come in all sizes and remember the outsized specimens from my school years. It's plausible in the real world that Josh could be that size and for all I know Frecheville was the same age to the hour as his character. But this is not a documentary or even a documentary drama (the film's central criminal action is drawn from rather than replays the Walsh St shootings of the 1980s), if anything it's more like a classical tragedy. About halfway through I started wishing Josh was frail and gawky and awkward right up to the apotheosis in the finale. That would have hurt a lot more and made this film unforgettable rather than patchily impressive.

It pains me to say this about this film as its strengths are pure and cinematic in a way that films from this country generally aren't. I get the strong feeling that a lot of the expository material was included because it was left unquestioned. Guy Pearce, whose underplaying here is to his credit, as a detective delivers the speech to Joshua the gives the film its title. It's a laboured analogy and could have been conveyed more sparely and bluntly to the same effect. But someone had written it (perhaps had begun the entire project with it) and it was in for life. See also the brief attempt at the intimidation of Josh by the younger detective in the motel room. Nicely written and played but its bulk, for all its brevity, just weighs the film down further. Everything that shifts focus from the second act on does this.

This is why when we see the female barrister toward the end we brighten up and pay attention. Her character appears exactly when it should and is played with a sharpness and wit that is both believable and relieving. Honourable mention here must also be given to the subplot of Josh's girlfriend. It's trim, realistic and high tragic all at once. It's also central to Josh's story (as is the barrister). Everything else at this point dilutes what ought to be concentrate.

So what is this? Have the big US cable shows with their trust in the depth of still waters begun to influence the cinema that had generated their own look and feel? Maybe but the fact is that The Sopranos has weeks of screen time per season to plumb the details of characters and life decisions as well as the extended "family". Animal Kingdom has two and a half hours tops (it's less than two) to do this and can't. There simply isn't the time. Every attempt at what I'll call extraneous depth slows this film down as effectively as the deleted scenes reinserted into The Exorcist after decades of devout service to cinema. Maybe a future director's cut could be shorter. Worked for Picnic at Hanging Rock.....

SHADOWS resumes screenings in March (program here)

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