The writer-director of this Australian crime drama, David Michôd, describes co-star Jacki Weaver as a “national treasure.” Here in the U.S. the 63-year-old actress is pretty much buried treasure, familiar from only a handful of long-ago film credits like Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). That all changed with her sweet-and-savage role in Animal Kingdom, for which she received Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress. “You thought you were tough in The Fighter, Melissa Leo? You don’t know what tough is.”
The Story: Tagged as an Oz Goodfellas, the movie put me more in mind of the moodier, more intimate At Close Range (1986), where Sean Penn and bandit Christopher Walken stared down the barrel of a gun at their family squabbles. The movie is set in Melbourne, “the perfect place to make a film about the end of the world,” Ava Gardner allegedly remarked when she filmed the apocalyptic On the Beach there in 1959. That dead-end quality seeps into this one, which begins as teenage Joshua (James Frecheville) watches passively as an EMT unit removes his mother’s heroin-ravaged corpse from their flat, a TV game show nattering on in the background. Though his mom had reason to be long estranged from her family her death leaves her son no options except to contact his grandma, Smurf (Weaver), who looks after her three sons in their suburban home with a velvet fist. But Darren (Luke Ford), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), and the eldest, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn)–career criminals transitioning from bank robbery to drug trafficking–are wary of the outsider, especially the rabbity Pope, whose eyes never seem to focus until they alight on his prey. Complications with the family business force the men to take “J,” who narrates, under their wing, while a police officer, Leckie (Guy Pearce), attempts to win his trust. With the cops depicted as being as corrupt and as trigger-happy as Smurf’s brood, however, there is no black-and-white in J’s situation, only deepening shades of gray dabbed with blood.
Much of the film is dominated by the men, all of whom are excellent (you cringe when Mendelsohn sneaks into the frame, not least when he takes an unhealthy interest in J’s girlfriend). I was wondering what the fuss was over Weaver, though; she was fine as the motherly, slightly ditsy Smurf, nothing outstanding. Then at about the 90-minute mark, as the slow-heating scenario starts bubbling furiously, comes The Scene, the one that will undoubtedly be shown on Sunday. Stripped of context The Scene, which takes place at a lawyer’s office, will prick up your ears; in the film it’s a grenade thrown at you with the pin removed, as Smurf reveals herself as Gargamel to family and foes alike. Weaver is shatteringly good, with other choice moments to come, as she leapfrogs past her fifth billing to take the reins. “Watch your back, Hailee Steinfeld.”
Audio/Video: DP Adam Arkapaw has shot this debut feature, a winner at Sundance and a fast favorite of Quentin Tarantino’s, with the colors on mute, a deceptively sleepy palette rendered accurately in this 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen ratio transfer. Like the story itself the 5.1 Dolby Digital surround track springs to life when you least expect it.
Special Features: While stronger on ambiance and performance than plot those are powerful enough to override a few contrivances and a beautifully conceived finale that in execution doesn’t pack the punch it should. You’ll want to know more when it’s over, and you will, via Michôd’s commentary, a Q&A with him, Weaver, and Frecheville, and a 15-minute making of. The theatrical trailer and a soundtrack promo (Antony Partos composed the brooding score) are also included.
Bottom Line: A galvanizing Oscar-worthy turn that you likely haven’t seen makes a visit to Animal Kingdom a worthwhile destination. “Mess with me and I’ll kill you, Helena Bonham Carter.”