I’m a bit behind here as I’ve been researching and now writing up the top 100 prospects, but I’ll try to at least get some fresh content up on the dish this week.
When I was slowly making my way through the 2010 nominees for the Academy Award for Best Picture over the course of the second half of 2011, several readers mentioned the Australian drama Animal Kingdom as an unjustly overlooked candidate for that honor (although Jacki Weaver did receive a Best Supporting Actress nod). It’s a harsh, bleak film that uses crime as a springboard for examining motivations behind individual decisions – including the fungible ties of family – without ever lapsing into pure crime drama, with a minimalist approach to dialogue and plot that kept the pace up even with such stark subject matter. And it was far better than two of the Best Picture nominees I saw, Black Swan and The Kids Are All Right, and is probably ahead of The Fighter for me as well.
As the film opens, we see Jay, a sullen teenager, calling 911 (or the Australian equivalent, I suppose) without any emotion to report that his mother, sitting next to him on the couch, appears to have OD’d on heroin. Even after her death, he calls his grandmother, Janine Cody (Weaver), from whom his mother was estranged, to ask for help, yet still shows very little emotion at all – what could be shock, of course, but turns out to be more than that. Janine is the head of an organized crime family, based on the real-life Pettingill family and the real murder of two police officers of which one of the Pettingill sons was accused, and Jay finds himself gradually folded into the family business without ever quite understanding his role in it until he’s arrested after the deaths of two police officers. From there, Jay finds himself forced to choose between the only family he has left and the morally correct option presented to him by the lead investigator, Sergeant Leckie (Guy Pearce, excellent as always), who tries to offer Jay a way out in exchange for the testimony to damn his uncles.
Although the Cody brothers are violent and disturbed, particularly Andrew (“Pope”, played by Ben Mendelsohn) and the paranoid Craig, the film’s setup puts them in the role of prey rather than predator, which at least explains their actions as those of desperate criminals rather than criminals who are violent for violence’s sake. Pope is at least a sociopath, Craig’s paranoia is the cause or result (or both) of his drug abuse, and it’s hinted that Darren is suppressing his homosexuality; all three in an unhealthy home environment, chased by a crooked police force, create a powder keg that the viewer expects to explode. (That’s not to forgive any of their violent acts, but provides depth to the characters beyond the simple “bad guy does bad thing” motif.) Jay, on the other hand, spends most of the film as its Nick Jenkins, mostly passive observer, occasional fringe participant, until events force him to choose sides and grab the wheel of his own fate.
Much of the dialogue in the film, especially spoken by Jay and his uncle Darren, is mumbled, and between that and their Australian accents I had to rewind a few times to catch what was said, although I assume the mumbling was by design, as those two characters share a certain reluctance to go all-in on the family’s activities. The film is often dimly lit, adding to the bleak feel but making it a little tough to watch. And since the film is driven not by violence (although there is some) or by action, but by dialogue and reactions between pairs of characters, it doesn’t fit neatly into buckets like “crime drama” or “action film” that might have made it more of a commercial success. (It earned just over $4.9 million at the box office in Australia, which made it one of the top earners of the year in that country – a fact that surprised me, since I tend to think of Australia as more populated than it actually is.)
Animal Kingdom was largely ignored by the Oscars, but it set records in Australia’s version of the awards for both nominations (18) and wins (10), the latter including best picture, director, screenplay, actress (Weaver), actor (Mendelsohn), and supporting actor (Joel Edgerton, as Barry “Baz” Brown, which was an odd choice if you’ve seen the film). It is loaded with strong performances and one of the most perfect endings I can remember to any film – it resolves one major plot strand, yet opens a new one just as large that remains unanswered.
I’d be curious if any of you have seen another Australian film written by Edgerton, The Square, a neo-noir drama that also received much critical acclaim.