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Animal Kingdom (Blu-ray Review)

24 Jan, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Sony Pictures
Box Office $1 million
$28.95 DVD, $34.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for violence, drug content and pervasive language.
Stars James Frecheville, Guy Pearce, Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford, Ben Mendelsohn, Jacki Weaver.

If the character Jacki Weaver plays in this terse Australian underworld sleeper were a production of Disney animation, she’d be the smiling solicitor who offers a young child candy or a shiny apple and then proceeds to make the tot’s life a living hell in captivity. She might scramble some eggs for you in the morning, but that would be about it.

So, indeed, this is Animal Kingdom, not “The” Animal Kingdom — the latter a tony Leslie Howard-Myrna Loy movie from a tony play by Philip Barry, who also wrote tony Holiday and The Philadelphia Story. But the Melbourne milieu here is incomparably more on the scuzzy side, starting right off with an opening scene where central character Josh (James Frecheville) is on a couch with his mother, watching an insipid TV game show. In through the front door walk some paramedics, who discover that mom is already dead of a heroin overdose and probably hasn’t been getting much out of the broadcast.

So without going over any rivers or through any woods, off to grandmother’s house Josh goes — a grandmother everyone calls “Smurf.” And what does he find? A bunch of thug uncles brandishing various levels of psychoses — a clan that Melbourne’s Armed Robbery Squad would like to bust for good reason, even though its favored target (Ben Mendelsohn as Uncle “Pope”) is in hiding somewhere and not currently living in what looks like cramped quarters with his siblings. Pope is also probably the scariest of these males, but one of the movie’s beauties is how gradually Granny Smurf shows her own true sinister colors as this story of wall-to-wall betrayal unfolds. Of course, even in her warmer moments, it’s a little disquieting to note the zeal with which she gets all smoochy and caressing with her boys in a way that American gangland matriarch Ma Barker likely didn’t in the 1930s.

From the get-go, my best friend was a huge fan of this movie, urging me to take a long trip to see it. And as we entered awards season, he began to lament the reality that a performance as good as Weaver’s as the grandmother probably had no chance of winning major awards — only to see her take best supporting actress in the very first voting anywhere: from the National Board of Review (an often maligned group that has nonetheless come up with some imaginatively savvy acting choices over the years). Weaver has since landed a Golden Globe nomination and would seem to be in strong standing to become one of this week’s Oscar finalists — though to give Mother Nature ample credit, she has exactly the right look for the part. If eyes are the windows to one’s soul, Weaver’s initially beckon one to bask in the glow of their perceived warmth — before a second look reveals the decay behind them.

Young Frecheville turns out to have been a keen casting stroke as well, even though he’s a taller actor than first-time director David Michod (who also wrote the script) envisioned. On the 75-minute making-of documentary that’s included as a bonus, Michod tells of his obvious worries that any young actor chosen for the Josh role might go on a growth spurt during the extended period between when film’s conception and shooting schedule. But as Michod came to see, there was another reason it made sense to cast a late adolescent actor who all but looked like a full-grown man. This way, it would be more credible that the uncles might try to recruit Josh into the gang, sensing that he could hold his own. What’s more, Frecheville is one of those actors — Matt Dillon also comes to mind — capable of suggesting more varied emotions than usually emanate from what is in some ways a monotonal vocal delivery. And all kinds of emotional things happen to Josh here, including not just what happens to his mother in the beginning but what happens when he makes the decision to take on a girlfriend (a luxury, as it turns out).

The whole movie, in fact, is extremely well cast, though the only actor most American audiences will know (as the cop who strives to get Josh to “turn”) is Guy Pearce, seen here in what is now a full decade after Memento. Someone in Hollywood, however, should find a way to do something with Weaver. In non-cheesecake ways, the camera likes her — almost as much as Grandma Smurf likes herself best of all.

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