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For Your Consideration: 'Animal Kingdom'

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Animal Kingdom (directed by
David Michôd)
Australian director David Michôd had a few award-winning short films to his name when he came out of nowhere with his debut feature, Animal Kingdom. The film received several awards, at Sundance and the Golden Globes among others, and it is one of the most gripping films in terms of character and story of those under review in this series leading up to the Academy Awards this Sunday. Like Winter's Bone, it concerns the inner turmoil of a crime family, in this case drug dealers and armed robbers in Melbourne. Josh (or J), the youngest member of the family, is reunited with his nefarious relatives when his mother, who is hardly a saint but who has tried to keep her son away from crime, overdoses on heroine. He has last seen them years ago, as a small child, and now he finds himself suddenly in the middle of the criminal activities of his uncles and their friends.

The cast gives a varied look at the life of crime, from the unbalanced, even psychopathic, in ringleader brother Andrew "Pope" Cody (the deceptively plain Ben Mendelsohn) to the sympathetic, sensible family friend Barry Brown (the avuncular Joel Edgerton) and the almost innocent brother Darren Cody (the charismatic Luke Ford). Most memorable of all is the the hotheaded, drug-dealing Craig Cody, played by a fierce Sullivan Stapleton with the most terrifying steely glare in the film and a volcanic temper hiding inner terror. Trying to find his place in this group of miscreants is the impressionable Josh Cody, played by open-faced, slightly vacant newcomer James Frecheville. The film's devastating opening scene, which begins with Josh sitting next to his mother, who has just died of an overdose, is unforgettable. As we watch his eyes hover between the rescue personnel trying to revive her and the idiotic game show he has been watching on television, it is clear that Josh has a most unusual sense of normal life.

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It is no surprise that he is drawn on some level to Leckie, the detective who tries to pry him away from this tight-knot but ultimately treacherous family, on odd sort of substitute father played by the ever-versatile Guy Pearce, softened with a cheesy mustache and miles away from his playboy King Edward VIII in The King's Speech. Josh tries to find a normal life for a 17-year-old, dating a girl from school (the lovely Laura Wheelwright) and fitting in as best he can with her relatively normal family. The strongest pull from his own family is exerted by the strange, matriarchal presence of his grandmother Janine, known as Grandma Smurf. As played magnificently by Jacki Weaver, she is vilely duplicitous, all cuddles and creepily physical affection on one hand, and bloodthirsty harshness on the other. She received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, the film's only Oscar recognition.

Weaver would probably get my vote because her performance and the role are so unusual, and much of it is not necessarily found in the screenplay -- a lot in glances, smiles, and body attitude. Given how little coverage the film has received, however, she probably has little chance at winning: at the time of writing she has received only one vote in the Ionarts Oscar Poll. Michôd directed this film from his own screenplay and it is excellent work, perhaps relying too much on voice-over to get at the inner mind of his protagonist. As an evocation of the underworld of 1980s Melbourne, the natural comparison is to American mob film counterparts like Casino, Donnie Brasco, or Goodfellas. To make too much of that parallel would be to disregard the originality of Michôd's film, which is vicious without being slick and over-produced or too dark and gritty like those earlier films.

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