Many Australian actors have found success in Hollywood. Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett have each won an Oscar and continue to thrive internationally. Toni Collette has parlayed a string of great supporting film roles into Emmy success on United States of Tara. It is unfortunate that so few Australian films reach North American audiences. It seems to be only when a huge name makes a small Australian film does anyone ever take notice. Animal Kingdom features only one notable name, Guy Pierce, and has garnered rave international reviews because of Jacki Weaver. The actress, who has appeared in very few films, delivers an outstanding and provocative performance as the matriarch of a Melbourne crime family. She has already won the Best Supporting Actress prize from the US-based National Board of Review. Though the winner of this particular award rarely goes on to Oscar glory, it is fantastic for a small Australian film to receive such acclaim in North America. David Michod demonstrates a great gift in his directorial debut and has assembled a first-rate cast. Every performance works and I sat at the edge of my seat for the entire film, unsure and eager to discover what would happen next. Animal Kingdom, which has been likened to a smaller-in-stature Goodfellas, is a briskly paced and often shocking film that left me completely out of breath.
Joshua 'J' Cody (James Frecheville) is seventeen and knows very little about his extended family. His mother shielded him from her family and has not seen her mother, Janine 'Smurf' Cody (Jacki Weaver), in a very long time. Things all change when J's mother dies of a heroin overdose and he has no other choice but to seek out his grandmother, who willingly invites him into her home. Smurf is the matriarch of a family of criminals and has a seemingly incestuous love for her three sons: Andrew (Ben Mendelsohn), also known as Pope, an armed robber, Darren (Luke Ford), Pope's apprentice, and Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), a drug dealer. The Armed Robbery Squad is after Pope and one detective, Nathan Leckie (Guy Pierce), believes that J is the link that will help the police arrest him. J is grounded by his relationship with Nicky (Laura Wheelwright), though his uncles and grandmother doubt her allegiance. The war between the Codys and the police eventually becomes more violent and J is unsure whether his loyalties lie with Leckie or with his estranged family.
Jacki Weaver's standout performance in Animal Kingdom is only made stronger by her fellow actors. James Frecheville gives J an honest sense of confusion and naivete while Ben Mendelsohn gives Pope a frightening volatility. The pacing of the film rarely gives you an opportunity to catch your breath of figure out what is going on and it is a successful tactic. Goodfellas is more of an saga featuring a large group of characters and it is hard to compare the two films, though I have read many articles that have tried. One called it Goodfellas-lite. Animal Kingdom succeeds on its own merits and David Michod, who also wrote the screenplay, has crafted a great film. The film is apparently based on a real-life Melbourne crime family, the Pettingills, who became infamous in Australia in 1988. Animal Kingdom shocked me and fascinated me. It is a chilling and compelling film that is well worth your time and will not disappoint you.
My rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.