The bet that Animal Kingdom makes is that audiences wont be sated by the extravagant vulgarity of Underbelly and will be prepared to come out to the movies to see something resembling a film a clef about another notorious piece of Melbourne’s criminal past. It shares one interesting element with The Wire. The most odious characters are neither the criminals nor the police but the lawyers. In The Wire the character who most makes your blood boil as he efficiently, and for high fees, frees his criminal clients from jail, turns a blind eye to gangland executions and exploits every loophole is the egregious lawyer who cheerfully gets his clients off a host of major violent crimes. In Animal Kingdom we accept gangland executions, revenge killings of and by police, the murder of a child, but we find really disgusting the amoral behaviour of the solicitor Ezra White, portrayed as a man of straightforward, nothing surprises me, efficiency by Dan Wyllie and, even worse, the smiling female criminal barrister who get their clients off. It’s an interesting turn of events. Somehow the notion of watching criminals do what they do has always been fascinating and touches something in us that admires slippery behaviour even when it’s violent. Watching lawyers go about their legitimate business of defending the interests of their crooked and violent clients is stomach turning.
The character of Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) also has some elements of interest. In a couple of scenes his psychopathic side gets a run through. The murder of the girl/child of course is one but at other times such as the scene where he meets his brother in the supermarket or harasses his brother Darren with questions as to whether he’s gay you get just a touch of a sense of the obsessive. The questions to the ‘gay’ brother are done in an outwardly friendly way along the lines of I don’t mind one way or the other but I just want to know but, like all psychopathic behaviour, Pope doesn’t know when to stop. But the scene ends with a whimper. It’s hard to know just how much Ben Mendelsohn’s performance throttles this aspect of Pope’s behaviour. Mendelsohn is not the sort of actor you cast when you are looking for someone whose mere demeanour can convey threat or menace. David Wenham has dibs on that trope but he’s already been there and much more effectively.
The best Oz feature film to delve into the domestic lives of the criminal underclass remains Rowan Wood’s The Boys. That was a film where the sons, at least all bar John Polson’s wimp, could turn violent at a moment’s notice and you believed it. Fuelled by drugs and life choices, they were far more animalistic than the relatively ‘sane’ family here where only one mad dog, Craig, stands in for the uncontrolled and impulsive. Michod actually seems to want to emphasise the ‘nice’ suburban nature of the family, carefully setting his action in houses set among quiet tree lined streets.
The image we have of the criminal and police classes in the noughts is physical similarity. The crims, at least the Williams and Morans who appear in the paper are all overweight as if they have too much time to sit around at home eating or in cafes drinking cappuccinos. Policemen today, especially detectives in suits, are rotund and have round bald heads as if they have been over fed on too many late night Chinese noshups. (Even Mel Gibson in Edge of Darkness has a paunch.) Or maybe with the cops at least somewhere there’s my memory trace of watching sixty hours of The Wire and seeing the police team dominated by guys like Bunk or the Sergeant or even McNulty who just eat and drink too much. (Except of course for the magnificent musculature of Lance Reddick as Daniels who gets to show off his pecs and abs at regular intervals, especially after he leaves his ambitious wife and takes up with the ambitious prosecutor.) In Animal Kingdom the ultra wiry Guy Pearce’s only nod to cop normality is a poorly cultivated moustache.
The one character/performance that is note perfect is that of James Frecheville as Josh. He captures perfectly male teenage hesitancy, insecurity, inarticulacy, diffidence and an ability to bottle up all the emotion. His hunching of his shoulders and downcast look has an exactitude about it that one hopes springs from great acting. In one so young it is remarkable to see.
Otherwise David Michod’s mise-en-scene is fairly lacklustre in giving his quite engrossing script any extra oomph. The scene where Josh runs away from Pope, begs a lift and, just as we think he might be getting away, has the car slammed, is done as near to blandly as you’ll ever see from a director who presumably has misspent his youth, like all others of his generation, watching Scorsese and David Lynch pictures. You have to wonder whether TV shooting styles, fear, good taste or simple reticence produced such a damp squib moment. It just moves the story along rather than giving some rawness and visceral excitement of the kind you find in the French Mesrine diptych for instance. Which I guess is about where the film mostly lands.