'Animal Kingdom' is the kind of sprawling, intensely focused crime saga that 'The Town' only wished it could be. And, as such, instead of the heaps of praise and surprisingly robust box office that came along with it, which is what 'The Town' was afforded, 'Animal Kingdom' made a minor splash in the art houses and quickly vanished.
Thankfully, it seems there might be a bit of a resurgence, not only with the outstanding Blu-ray of the film that is coming out now, but also with talk of an Oscar nomination for the film's Lady Macbeth, played by the wonderful Australian character actress Jacki Weaver.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. 'Animal Kingdom' is the debut feature from writer-director David Michôd. It's primarily the story of Joshua, or as everyone calls him, "J" (played by newcomer James Frecheville), who in the first scene is shown sitting beside his mom's slumped over corpse. She's overdosed on heroin, so he goes to live with his aunt "Smurf" (Weaver's character), who genially oversees her family's crime business, led by J's uncles. Business isn't exactly booming, but they're a hardened bunch of thieves, led by the psychotic Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), and their time seems to be coming to a close.
This is mostly thanks to an equally hardened bunch of Melbourne cops who ran an anti-robbery task force. Much of the movie is based on real life Australian incidents, including the task force, which was said to have been just as reckless and ruthless as the baddies they were going after.
After a member of the family is murdered, the surviving boys decide to take revenge in a truly awful, pointless way, which sets the stakes for the rest of the film. It's a breathless, horrifying moment, a point-of-no-return. And the rest of the movie closes in with increasing claustrophobia as "J," an essentially good kid who just happens to be caught up in a family of extreme fuck-ups at the most vulnerable moment in his young life, is trapped in the middle.
On one side is his family, who are capable of ghastly acts, and on the other are the cops, many of whom are just as bad, but one, played by Guy Pearce, shows an almost fatherly interest in his well being. Almost every character in 'Animal Kingdom' is either manipulating or being manipulated, and you can't tell what is going on with Pearce's Detective Leckie. Does he know about the harm that the task force is doing? Or is he unaware? Is he trying to trap J just as much as the family is?
It's these lingering questions, stuffed into every nook and cranny of 'Animal Kingdom,' that give it its richness of texture and exotic allure. There's an instance when Smurf tells Pope that he might want to think about going on his medication. The insinuation is that it's an anti-psychotic drug, but there's room for interpretation there. For a moment I thought that, given the leery looks that Pope shoots J's teenage girlfriend, that he might also be on some kind of chemical castration treatment.
Those looking for a brisk, jokey crime movie in the realm of Guy Ritchie movies or Elmore Leonard novels are going to be disappointed. 'Animal Kingdom' is a somber, nuanced crime story with an emphasis on character and interior development. There isn't a whole lot of bang-bang-bang, but there is the inner anguish of knowing that you've committed yourself to a life that you can never, ever escape from. Instead of the showy action movie theatrics of 'The Town,' 'Animal Kingdom' is content with the unsettling sensation of creeping dread. As far as debut features go, I can't imagine David Michôd making a bigger splash.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Animal Kingdom' prowls onto high-def on a 50GB Blu-ray disc that is Region A locked. The disc auto-plays, which is followed up by a number of annoying previews (this is a Sony disc, after all), and, yeah, that's about it.
The MPEG-4 AVC 1080p (aspect ratio: 2.35:1) transfer is a really sharp and adds a whole lot to the movie's overall texture.
What I mean is that the movie is rather dense, thematically and narrative-wise, and the transfer, in which even the most mundane setting (J's girlfriend's middle class home, for instance) is given an amazingly detailed dimensionality. (Just look at the patterns on Pope's hideous Hawaiian shirts!)
Skin tones look amazing, black levels are deep and dark (although occasional noise intrudes on scenes shot at night), and colors (like the logo on J's continually worn T-shirt) pop as much as they're supposed to. It's amazing to watch the progression of that T-shirt, as it gets dirtier and dirtier as the movie moves along.
Besides that, there isn't a whole lot else to report. This is one of those dynamic transfers that is easy to overlook because the film doesn't contain any huge set pieces or glittery special effects that demand the kind of goggle-eyed "gee whiz" response from most people.
Just as nuanced as the video presentation is the disc's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix.
For a sprawling crime drama, 'Animal Kingdom' is surprisingly quiet. The emphasis on most scenes is on dialogue between the various members of the family, and in that respect the mix does gangbusters – you can clearly and crisply hear every piece of dialogue, although the gummy Australian accent might prove difficult for some (just snap on those subtitles).
There are moments of intense action and suspense, however, and those are deliberately forceful, with a huge amount of sonic oomph behind them. Several people get shot (and shoot off guns) and each time a bullet fires, you will jump in your seat. This is a testament to the elegance of the sound design, which is so nuanced and quiet, that when these things happen, you'll be shocked.
The sound effects, though, as powerful as they are, never overwhelm, and a good deal of surround activity goes into just creating this world – the shuffle of feet as they move from one room to the other, the way that an Air Supply song resonates from being on a television in the film to consuming the soundtrack. And speaking of sound, I would also like to give a special shout out to how amazing the score by Antony Partos is. I had never heard of the dude before (he's an Australian composer), but man this score is just great. And it, like everything else, it sounds great on this mix.
There's only one option for sound, but there are subtitles in English, English SDH, and Spanish.
'Animal Kingdom' comes equipped with a number of sizeable special features, most notably an absolutely wonderful hour-long documentary. Really great stuff, and I'm glad that its relative failure to catch fire at the box office didn't influence whoever put this disc together.
'Animal Kingdom' is an absolutely fantastic Australian crime drama – nuanced, blistering, emotionally riveting, and very, very real. It's a shame the movie didn't make more of a splash when it was initially released theatrically, but that doesn't mean you can't catch up with it now. Thanks to this wonderful Blu-ray, with a divine presentation and a wealth of significant extras, it's worth making the dangerous trek into the animal kingdom, for sure. Highly recommended.