Animal Kingdom

Dir: David Michôd

Rating: 1.5/5.0

Sony Pictures Classics

114 Minutes

Animal Kingdom begins as 17-year-old J (James Frecheville) and his mother are sitting on the couch, watching television. Within moments, his mother is dead of a heroin overdose and J apathetically calls his grandmother, informing her of the death with a glassy-eyed pallor. Soon, he will be living her and his four criminal uncles, the proverbial animals in director David Michôd’s kingdom.

The best crime films manipulate us so we’re cheering for the bad guys to pull off the heist. Movies like Rififi, Dog Day Afternoon and even The Bank Job all humanize their protagonists so even if you disagree with what they’re doing, there is still that pull that connects the audience to the people on the screen. Unfortunately, Michôd and his crime family have no animal magnetism at all. In fact, we could care less if the police pick them off or not.

It’s bad enough that each of J’s uncles are unlikable and flat, but J, Michôd’s protagonist, barely even registers a pulse, creating one of the least enjoyable and least interesting protagonists in recent cinema. If it was Michôd’s intention that the audience becomes initiated into J’s criminal family, much the same way J is brought into the circle, it is completely unreasonable for anyone to care.

Each of J’s uncles embody a different crime film stereotype: Barry (Joel Edgerton)is fatherly and the most in control of his emotions, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is the drug-addled live wire, Darren (Luke Ford) is the youngest, reluctant and scared, and Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) is the sociopathic villain, willing to kill to stay out of jail. When the police begin assassinating the brothers, J is caught in the crosshairs and must decide whether the cops or Pope’s wrath is the more dangerous force to reckon with.

So there you have it. Michôd’s aims for Scorsese but walks away with a film that proves crime doesn’t pay, but even worse, crime is boring. He attempts to marry slow motion scenes with sweeping music, but rather than create the cinematic grandeur of Goodfellas, or even Casino, the fancy dressings do nothing to hide the boilerplate script and one-dimensional characters, making a film as placid and vapid as its protagonist.

While a third act twist does liven things up for a few minutes, Michôd again stalls out by stopping the tension right when things get good. Even the appearance of Guy Pierce as a cop, albeit a bland one, cannot save {Animal Kingdom} from the doldrums. And what does it say when a peripheral character is the film’s moral compass?

Michôd’s fatal flaw is creating a movie that rides on the tropes and successes of past crime movies in such a vainglorious manner, that he forgets that sympathetic, or even interesting characters make or break a film. When the paternal advice dispensed by Barry to J is limited to washing one’s hands whenever you touch your cock or ass, you know there is little subtextual or even creative depth to mine. Even the psychopath is boring. To title your film Animal Kingdom is one thing, but the only animals in Michôd’s world lack not only teeth, but the ability to gum their food.

by David Harris

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