When I think of Australia I think of “Once were warriors” by Lee Tamahori, “Shine” (1996), “Ten Canoes” (2006), Mike Tyson’s Maori tattoo, the bush, and, kangaroos.
And so it was with an eagerness for discovery that I watched David Michôd’s “Animal Kingdom,” set in Melbourne in the 1980s.
There’s grittiness in the way “Kingdom” was lensed: in fact, tint-wise it looks like a movie made in the Eighties. There’s also restraint in the filmmaking. None of that hand-held, seasickness-inducing camera motion like the one used recently by Terrence Malick.
After his mother dies of a heroin overdose, Joshua (James Frecheville) moves in with his grandmother Smurf Cody (Australian actor Jacki Weaver), the matriarch of a notorious crime family. Her three sons are involved in a variety of unoriginal criminal activities and won’t mind shooting the occasional police officer as the need arises. “Three’s Company” seems like a long time ago.
A sense of doom hangs over “kingdom,” as if we, as well as the brothers, know that bad things are going to happen to them. What’s not helping is the film’s slow pace and a story exposition which lasts way longer than it should.
The Cody brothers are all petrified with fear. What’s missing is that streak of invincibility normally exhibited by big-screen scoundrels, a hint of showmanship. But these boys were well along their undoing already by the time we join them.
One brother gets busted for drug dealing and things unravel from there, betrayal and paranoia thrown in for good measure. It sounds like a rush, but it ain’t. Sure, our boys are charismatic but not as much as Calamity Jane. Weaver camps the role of crime family matriarch to perfection, but that’s not enough to save this lackluster drama.
The biggest fault with “Kingdom” is the writing. I’m not sure what went wrong during that process but something most definitely did. Certain scenes are thrown in which add a whole lot of nothing to the story: Pope, one of the brothers, orders Joshua (also known as J) to boost a car and deliver it to him at 2 o’clock in the morning. No explanation is given why. A few hours later, two cops looking for the stolen vehicle notice a car parked in the middle of the road, its doors open. As they search inside, three men appear out of nowhere and shoot them execution-style.
Maybe this was the scene from another movie. Or maybe “Animal Kingdom” was supposed to start this way. Or maybe a sequel will soon be produced, and the car theft Incident will be revealed.
The only redeeming feature of “Animal Kingdom” is the presence of Guy Pearce–he’s gotten better as time goes– in the cast. His police detective Leckie hunts down the brothers and takes Joshua under his wing when the going gets rough.
Either way, I am far from enthralled by this family of gangsters from the land of Down Under. There have been some extraordinary movies from Australia. There will be others.