Review: Animal Kingdom

bill bodkin digs into the Australian import Animal Kingdom

When actors from an independent or foreign film got nominated for an Oscar, the movie-going public will race out to their local art house cinemas or scour Netflix to see these films. Our interest gets piqued, we want to find out why the Academy decided to go outside of the Hollywood mainstream or even out of our borders to nominate someone’s work.

This year, the Academy nominated actress Jacki Weaver as Best Supporting Actress for her work in the Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom. And while I might not have been blown away by Ms. Weaver’s performance, I was certainly glad to have discovered this compelling foreign film.

Animal Kingdom is your classic crime drama. Shakespearean in it’s tragedy, Scorsesean in it’s intensity. The film’s entire mood is set by our main character J: “Crooks always come undone, always, one way or another.”

And during the whole movie, we are presented with highly emotional, intense and combustible characters (some more outwardly than others), who at any second could come undone. This cold-sweat aura is hanging over everyone, and as an audience member, it’s as engrossing as it is unsettling.

The central character of the film is J (newcomer James Frecheville), a tall, quite high school senior who, after the heroin overdosed death of his mother, goes to live with his grandmother (Weaver) and her brood of criminal sons and their best friend Barry (Joel Edgerton). It’s Barry who holds this live wire bunch together, especially now that the heat is on from the police who are searching for the eldest of Weaver’s boys, “The Pope.”

Well, as any good Shakespearean or Scorsesean film, the glue that holds the crew together is undone in a hail of bullets. J is thrust into an out of control world of crime and violence — murder, heroin, lies and deceit abound. Who can he trust? Wan the young “cub” survive in the wilds of the Aussie underworld, especially since he’d rather not be a part of it?

Frecheville is perfect as J. He plays the tall, silent, awkward and the seemingly perpetually stoned teen to an absolute T. He’s so void of emotion that you can’t figure out which way he’ll go. When push comes to shove, will he side with the detective (Guy Pearce), who’s offering him the chance at a good, crime-free life, or will he remain loyal to the pride, his family? The ending sequences of the film, which revolve around his decision, are extremely well-done and will keep you guessing until the end credits.

Now we come to the performance that brought us to the dance: Weaver as Janine “Grandma Smurf” Cody. In his review, Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers said Weaver “sets the screen on fire,” while others have gone on and on about how amazing her performance was.

Well, if you’re looking for this incendiary performance, you’ll have to wait for the final 20 minutes of the film. And when she finally gives it, I had the same reaction I did to all the hype about Annette Benning’s performance in The Kids Are All Right. Sure, it was a good performance, but to deserve such critical praise evokes a beard-scratching “I don’t see it” reaction. Does her performance justify a snub for Mila Kunis — who had been nominated by every major award ceremony? Does she outdo Julianne Moore for The Kids Are All Right? I say no to both.

Yet, ultimately, her nomination was the push I needed to watch Animal Kingdom. I was excited to see this lauded performance, and while it didn’t live up to my expectations, I was lucky to have discovered a brilliantly done crime drama. Had it not been for her nomination, I probably never would have seen it.

Bill Bodkin is the gray bearded owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, he is lucky husband, and proud father to a beautiful daughter named Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site’s podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites

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