Posted: 01/23/2010

 

SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL REVIEWS - WORLD PREMIERES

by Paul Fischer




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ANIMAL KINGDOM
Director: David Michôd

Cast Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver, James Frecheville
Producer Liz Watts
Composer Antony Partos
Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw
Editor Luke Doolan
Production Designer Jo Ford
Sound Designer Sam Petty


It would be fair to say that the Australian film industry is undergoing a remarkable renaissance, continuing to come to terms with its own cultural identity while at the same time reaching a broad international audience. Australian films often take an established genre and give it a jolt, a much needed shot in the arm, and this is the case with Animal Kingdom that marks the feature directorial debut of the clearly talented David Michôd.

In a flawless performance by Ben Mendelsohn, the actor is one Pope Cody, an armed robber on the run from a gang of corrupt Melbourne detectives, and is in hiding, surrounded by his roughneck friends and family. Soon, Pope’s nephew, Josh [newcomer James Frecheville], arrives and moves in with his relatives. When tensions between the family and the police reach a bloody peak, Josh finds himself at the centre of a cold-blooded revenge plot that turns the family upside down. At the centre of this sometimes Oedipal family drama is its clingy matriarch, played with devilish glee by veteran Jacki Weaver.

Animal Kingdom is set amidst the backdrop of police corruption, prevalent in Australia but in particular Melbourne, yet director Michôd has managed a fresh approach to often familiar territory. Creating a film that has film noir elements at its periphery; his sharply written script is rich with indelible characters and wonderful dialogue. There’s a touch of a young Scorsese evident in his film, but with a very distinctive Australian, laconic bent, coupled with episodes of uncompromising violence, all of which defines the film’s often narcissistic characters. Visually, the film is striking, beautifully shot by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, sharply cut to heighten suspense and mood, and the sound design of Sam Petty enhances the film’s tone.

Performances are pitch perfect in Animal Kingdom. Ben Mendelsohn, who has been an established facet of Australian cinema for some two decades but following his remarkable performance in Beautiful Kate, that screened in Toronto, and now seeing him in Animal Kingdom, his maturity and growth as an actor are in clear evidence. As Pope, Mendelsohn is magnificent to put it simply: Chilling, controlled, nuanced, provocative and fascinating. This is one of those great screen performances that remain unforgettable for its power. In moments of contemplation and silence, there is acting on the purest of levels. Joel Edgerton has also grown in leaps and bounds and gives a meticulous performance as one of the more tragic characters in this tale. As for Jacki Weaver, she is a revelation as the possessive mother of all mothers. This is her finest hour on film, a beautifully realized and complex performance.

Animal Kingdom has Shakespearean qualities in its portrait of betrayal and paranoia, yet its very definitive Australian tone sets it apart from its Hollywood counterparts. This is a smart, compelling masterwork, a wonderful feature debut and a film destined for both Australian domestic and international success.

Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.



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