Friday, April 29, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Animal Kingdom (2010) 1h 53m

On Saturday, 30 April at 6:31pm, The Phnom Penh Film Club straps in for one of the most stark and relentless films we’ve tried, *Animal Kingdom* (2010), written and directed by first-timer David Michod, and starring Jacki Weaver, Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn, and, in a positively thrilling debut performance, James Frecheville. 

In fairness a tough and gritty narrative isn’t really all *that* unusual an ingredient for successful, or entertaining, or critically acclaimed films. Indeed already in our short time together we have shared some outstanding examples of each. But what’s probably much less common are the films that manage all four things at once. Especially when also offering brilliant first-time directing, elite cinematography, a pitch-perfect score and, above all, an entire cast’s worth of performances so bang-on perfect that at some point, very early along the way, it becomes essentially impossible to remember that we’re all just taking in a movie. 

Adapted loosely from the true-life story of the notorious Pettingill crime family of Melbourne, Animal Kingdom sees Frecheville playing the lead role of “J,” an unnervingly impressionable young man who finds himself bunking up with a gang of vicious bank robbers. Oh, I forgot one small detail: The bank robbers in question just happen to be his own extended family. 

After some uneasy opening notes to set an appropriately uneasy tableau for J’s new place in his new domesticity, the various gang members take their turns showing him in no uncertain terms how they feel about his sudden presence, neither decorum nor basic self-consistency withstanding. Gradually it emerges that neither J nor the others are comfortable with his front-row seat to the family business, nor is anyone prepared to finally take the taboo step of severing that sole remaining hereditary provenance in J’s young life. Nobody ever actually says, “Where else would [he/I] go” but the question is always hanging there among us, the acrid stench of an unforeseen, inescapable, and literally existential Hobson’s Choice. 

Naturally, matters turn in chilling directions for which J is obviously neither prepared nor the least bit pre-adapted. And then they turn again in ways that make J’s situation even more intractable. And then it happens again, and again, and again, and *again*. All while a kaleidoscope of brilliantly drawn supporting characters struggle to recruit, coopt, cajole, turn, ignore, or in some cases even neutralize, this our most reluctant hero. Eventually, when the final twist must surely, surely have come and gone, we allow ourselves to trust the surety of a lifetime’s experience of cinematic denouements—and we exhale. Big mistake, that.   

The film was a smash-hit runaway success in both Australia and the U.S., with Jacki Weaver nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of the coolly psychotic family matriarch, “Grandma Smurf.” Pay special attention to exactly how she casually shows her own sons how happy she is to have them around her home, and then feel about it exactly as you’re tempted to allow yourself to feel. Especially as J takes a mantle that has much less to do with accidental custody and much more to do with steering the entire family’s grim and sordid near-term prospects. 

I hope everyone will plan on joining us, Saturday 30 April at 6:31pm, for this very special event. If I can promise anything, it’s that our usual policy of respectful silence for the end titles will require absolutely no policing whatsoever for this one—as we all sit thunderstruck and unsure how to even process its very final moments. Never mind the stunning performances, the improbably confident directing, and the story that grabs us from page one and never once lets go. For all these reasons, Animal Kingdom is a film that I can promise that none of us will soon forget.

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