ANIMAL KINGDOM: a Work of Savage Genius

A film that’s somehow flying under the radar right now (only 800 reviews on IMDB?!) is Animal Kingdom and I wanted to put it on your must-see lists, stat.  Just saw this Australian inspiration on Sunday and it pretty much blew Stogie away.  I had to re-light my damn cigar.  It’s that good.

If you don’t know anything about the flick, know this: It won a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year and Guy Pearce is in it.  That should probably be enough to get your tuchus into the theater, but if you want to know more I’ll add that it’s a crime drama that feels unlike any other.  You’ve probably seen a movie about a family of criminals whom the law is closing in on, but you DEFINITELY haven’t seen this one.

Writer/director David Michôd consciously makes small left turns at every opportunity so that each scene isn’t quite what you expect.  The unique rhythms of these people’s lives and how they deal with the life-and-death predicaments they face is quite riveting.  The story is shocking in ways that feel completely authentic to the characters and their world.  This movie fulfills all the expectations of the genre—it’s searingly intense and gritty as hell without getting melodramatic, or even showy, for a second.

If you’re writing anything like this—a crime drama, a thriller, even an action movie—you have to see how Michôd ratchets up the pressure on his protagonist while giving the character room to grow.  His original screenplay takes the familiar assassinations, interrogations and betrayals into unexpectedly compelling places.

And this guy is a helluva director as well as a writer.  The way he composes and sustains shots is haunting and melancholy, yet fraught with tension.  The film gets a big boost from D.P. Adam Arkapaw’s languidly menacing tracking shots. But the performances Michôd conjures from his cast might be the film’s greatest asset.

If Jackie Weaver doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, there’s no justice in the world. She plays a criminal matriarch you won’t soon forget—equal parts solicitous Mom and cold-blooded monster.  The whole cast is naturalistic, nuanced and entirely convincing.  They do phenomenal work.

If you liked Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone—not coincidentally, the other drama to win a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and a great crime tale in its own right—you have to see this.  But I think Animal Kingdom is even more ambitious, technically accomplished and narratively sound than that top-notch film. (Though Jennifer Lawrence’s resourceful Ree Dolly definitely tops James Frecheville in any contest of teen protagonists. She’s another Oscar lock in my book.)

So you can wait for the Oscar buzz to start, or be the cool kid who tells your friends about it.  The movie’s only in limited release right now, but if you find a screening within 60 miles of your domicile, do yourself a favor and check it out.  I’m giving it four cigars on the Stogiemeter (that’s a perfect score).

— Stogie Joe