Blu-ray Review: Animal Kingdom (2010)

Regardless of why American critics find it necessary to translate a foreign picture's potential appeal in simple terms as a variation of a cultural touchstone Hollywood movie with which film fans worldwide should be familiar, Stephen Holden's decision to sum up Animal Kingdom as “an Australian answer to Goodfellas,” is particularly disappointing.

At its core, the one-dimensional statement detracts from the power, magic and startling visceral poetry of both works, similar to the endless Godfather comparisons that filled ads for last year's foreign stunner A Prophet.

Although predictably Holden's line landed on the front of the recently released Sony Pictures Classics Blu-ray edition of Kingdom, it's yet another reminder for international audiences to ignore the buzz, blurbs and trailers to -- if at all possible -- postpone screening a hype flooded film until after the hyperbole has begun to wash away.

Even more than with movies made on our soil, the best way to fully appreciate and experience a foreign film that immerses us in an entirely different culture and country (regardless of whether or not they speak our language) is just to imagine ignoring the guidebooks and figuratively hopping on a plane. And when it comes to Animal Kingdom in particular, I urge you to just throw caution to the wind and dive right into the main attraction itself.

Kingdom is the result of a storytelling odyssey that developed over the course of nine years, which began when Sydney, Australia native David Michôd moved to Melbourne and decided to read more about his new surroundings. Drawn in particular to the world of true crime, he found himself fascinated with the near wild west style accounts of criminals as dictators who ran their communities with terror and the renegade cops that gunned down violent thieves, regardless of whether or not they were committing a crime at that particular moment in time.

Not wanting to base his work on any one specific real-life case, cop or crook to avoid the criminal-as-celebrity conundrum of contemporary true life dramas, Michôd set out to deliver a sprawling multi-faceted epic crime saga with a revolving door of characters whose fates were entirely unpredictable.

Humanistic and hard to describe solely in the terms of a traditional crime film, Kingdom initially seems inspired by post-World War II Italian Neorealism and the coming-of-age docudrama approach utilized by UK director Ken Loach, with regard to Kingdom's subtle sociological preoccupations that linger just below the surface from the moment we first meet our seventeen-year-old protagonist J.

In Kingdom's matter-of-fact introduction intriguingly shot with minimal emotion and zero sentimentality, after his mother dies of a heroin overdose, J is taken in by his estranged grandmother Smurf (Jacki Weaver), who invites him to live with her as well as J's notoriously dangerous uncles – known in cop circles simply as The Codys.

While it does take a little bit of time to tell them apart, The Codys are comprised of four very different personalities that defy the one-sentence stereotypes we traditionally find in contemporary crime movies such as “loose cannon” or “paranoid junkie.”

At times, different characters defy our first impressions either by going along with something we wouldn't have expected they would've or finding themselves overtaken by other siblings, including the two who fight over which one is truly Cody “alpha,” in a way that subtly works in the survival of the fittest overtones contained in the film's title.

Moreover, although Guy Pearce's Melbourne police officer gives an understated yet eloquent speech that also echoes the rules of the animal kingdom while trying to get J to cooperate as a witness against his uncles after both sides lose two men, one of the most fascinating decisions that writer/director Michôd executes in Kingdom is to make the most influential, manipulative and emotionally complicated character a woman.

But instead of just opting for the Film Noir standby of a blonde femme fatale or gun moll girlfriend, Animal Kingdom remembers that -- evolutionarily speaking -- long before there were “goodfellas” (as Holden might say) and/or bad fellas, there were the mothers who conceived, carried, deliver, raised and nurtured the men in question.

While she sends chills down spines in the spoiler-heavy trailer, the amount of mixed emotions and nuances served up by Jacki Weaver as both J's grandmother and the fiercely protective mother of her murdering sons has made her role as a cross between Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth and a Tennessee Williams deluded leading lady one of the most talked about performances and characterizations of 2010.

Likewise, from the daughters in Winter's Bone and True Grit to the mothers in Mother and Animal Kingdom and the sister in Conviction and more, last year it was the women much more than the men who were hell-bent and determined to take care of their families and get things done to a degree that we usually haven't seen before in contemporary male-centric cinema.

A staggeringly potent directorial debut that surpassed Michôd's goal to take itself seriously as a thoughtful, poetic offering in the crime vein rather than echoing the darkly comic, too-cool-for-school approach epitomized in the work Michôd cited of Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, and Robert Rodriguez, Animal Kingdom is a masterfully complex title that defies labels, genres as well as surface-level comparisons to other movies that broke the mold.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.