Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Melbourne Goodfellas: Animal Kingdom

Yes, Joshua “J” Cody’s mom was a junkie, but her drug overdose death actually signals the end of his stable years. It is time for the teenager to meet his loving grandmother and stick-up men uncles. Indeed, there is a reason he has been kept away from the rest of the Cody clan in David Michôd’s Australian crime drama, Animal Kingdom (trailer here), the winner of the World Cinema Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, which opens in New York this Friday.

As the film opens, J seems to be taking his mother’s death quite well. After coolly calling paramedics, he continues watching his cheesy game show. Not really knowing what else to do, he then calls his estranged grandmother, Janine “Smurf” Cody, who bundles her bland grandson up to live with her and her grown (sort of) sons.

Little older than J, Uncle Darren is something like a brother to the confused teen. The somewhat fatherly Barry (a.k.a. “Baz”) Brown is the smartest and steadiest of the pack. He is also growing uncomfortable with their chosen lined of work: armed robbery, with a growing interest in drugs. That is hardly the case for Uncle Craig, the drug-addled lunatic, or the most dangerous Cody brother, Uncle Pope, who has been forced into hiding by the Melbourne Police’s round-the-clock surveillance.

Far from glamorizing their lives of crime, Michôd creates a tackily garish world, where the family unit offers no meaningful protection. Eventually, the Codys explicitly turn on each other, with their Machiavellian matriarch setting the standard for cold-blooded ruthlessness.

Given its Joe Lunchbox portrayal of suburban crime, punctuated by moments of startling violence, Kingdom begs comparisons to Goodfellas. In truth, Jacki Weaver’s Mother Cody might be scarier than Joe Pesci (sorry Spider). However, the sullen J is no Henry Hill. Frankly, the dullness of its protagonist is Kingdom’s only substantial flaw.

Still, having two great movie villains in the same film is a rather notable accomplishment. It is debatable which is creepier, Weaver’s cold-blooded portrayal of Ma Smurf or Ben Mendelsohn’s chilling work as the flat-out psychopathic Pope. Joel Edgerton is also perfectly on-pitch as the hardnosed Baz. Oddly, the most recognizable cast member, Guy Pearce, is under-utilized as copper Nathan Leckie. It is not that he is bad in the film, he simply is not given much to do. However, James Frecheville is pretty much “eh” as J.

Overall though, Michôd has crafted an effectively grungy working class gangster epic. A better Aussie crime drama than the Edgerton’s The Square, Kingdom is all about its truly memorable villains. It opens this Friday (8/13) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.