A teenage boy and his sleeping mother sit motionless on a couch watching trash TV. Suddenly paramedics enter and attend to the woman – the boy stands up to let them through, but his eyes remain fixed on the screen. Cut to the still blank-faced boy, fiddling with peanuts, on the phone to his grandmother – his mum has overdosed on heroin and ‘gone and died’, so he’s wondering what to do. Grandma says she’ll come and get him.
So begins David Michôd striking debut feature, Animal Kingdom. We are introduced, through the eyes of young ‘J’, to the Codys, a family of feral criminals in suburban Melbourne. They’re a colourful cast of characters – bank robbers, drug dealers, drug users – constantly at war with the police and each other. Binding them together is the aforementioned Grandma, memorably played by Jackie Weaver with toothy grin and demonic eyes.
The story that plays out is bleak and often brutal, but also rich with dark humour – for instance, psychopathic eldest brother Pope’s repeated invitations for other family members to reveal the contents of their minds: “I don’t mind, as long as you talk to me about it”. Later, J’s attempt to escape from Pope via a lift from his girlfriend’s unknowing Dad is afforded a wonderful dash of farce by the latter’s extreme lack of urgency.
Indeed there’s a lot of ‘slowness’ around here, in all sorts of ways. It’s most apparent in dramatic moments where other films might speed up, like deaths: the startlingly unhurried manner in which a police hit squad step out of a car to gun down a fleeing target, or the casual, almost weary way one drugged-up character disposes of another via suffocation.
Michôd literally employs slow-mo when he knows he’s got a good shot, and we allow him the indulgence since they are indeed such well framed, beautifully lit shots. My favourite was of Pope, seated in the dark, contemplating the murder of his friend by the police – Michôd’s camera makes an oh-so-gradual 180-degree journey from the back of his head round to his brooding face, whilst Air Supply’s ‘I’m All Out of Love’ plays on the TV beside him.
For a crime thriller, it’s an austere piece of work – a lean film which keeps dialogue to a minimum, lending every utterance a weight of menacing significance. No scene is unnecessary. Only James Frecheville as J lets the side down slightly: narrow eyed and pursed lipped, he fails to do much more with his interesting face than look vacant throughout. I know ’emotional detachment’ was his thing (as set up by those brilliant first two scenes) but I wondered whether what he was doing counted, strictly speaking, as acting.
Nevertheless this was compelling stuff. It’s an intelligent crime drama which, much like last year’s A Prophet, manages to be both stylish and weighty at the same time. The more I think about it the more I like it. Go see if you can.