Animal Kingdom

cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver, and James Frecheville

writer and director: David Michôd

108 minutes (18) 2010
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Optimum DVD Region 2

RATING: 8/10
review by Gary Couzens

Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom is set in Melbourne in the 1980s. When 17-year-old Joshua ‘J’ Cody (James Frecheville) finds his mother dead of a heroin overdose, he is taken in by his grandmother, Janine, known as ‘Smurf’ (Jacki Weaver). She had been estranged from J’s mother, with the result that he hadn’t seen her for years. So he becomes part of Smurf’s family of professional criminals, which includes Darren (Luke Ford), a drug dealer, and Andrew alias ‘Pope’ (Ben Mendelsohn), a violent psychopath hiding from the police.

Following some well-received shorts (including Netherland Dwarf and Crossbow, which have been shown in the UK on Film Four recently), Animal Kingdom is David Michôd’s first feature. It was partly inspired by Melbourne’s Wash Street killings of 1988, where two policemen were gunned down after responding to a report of a stolen car, an incident recreated for this film. It follows the time-honoured story of the corruption of an innocent.

As Smurf, Weaver is a standout, as the matriarch who has an incipiently incestuous hold over her sons and in the end proves to be the most ruthless of the lot. Weaver won an Australian Film Institute award as best lead actress, one of ten the film won, and was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress for this performance.

Animal Kingdom is a strong film without a doubt, but after two viewings (one in the cinema, the second with this DVD) it falls into the category of like-but-not-love for me. The performances are all first rate, but young Frecheville (in only his second feature) tends to be overpowered by the older actors around him. Or maybe it’s because J is simply less interesting than the characters around him, which leaves this film a little hollow at the centre. However, there are plenty of reasons to see this.

Optimum’s DVD is encoded for Region 2 only. The DVD transfer is in the correct ratio of 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced. There are two soundtrack options: Dolby digital 5.1 and Dolby surround (2.0). Unusually for an Optimum English-language release, but thankfully, there are English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing.

Optimum’s release transfers over most of the DVD extras from Madman’s Region 4 edition, though it loses the short Crossbow. There are two commentaries: a solo one from a clearly nervous Michôd, and a group chat with Michôd, Mendelsohn, Weaver, Frecheville, and Sullivan Stapleton. The latter is more a bantering session between the participants and it stops at the 62-minute mark. Amongst other things they discuss whether Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton (presenters of Australian television’s long-running At The Movies) will give the film the full ten stars – five each – in their review. (They actually gave the film four and a half stars each).

Some swearing in this second commentary is the probable reason why this DVD has an 18 certificate – the film itself has a 15. Other extras comprise a detailed making-of featurette (69 minutes), the trailer, and some EPK interviews – sound-bites really, with Michôd, Guy Pearce (playing cop Leckie, who tries to pull J away from his family), Mendelsohn, Edgerton, Weaver, Frecheville, and Laura Wheelwright (who plays J’s hapless girlfriend), Stapleton, and Ford.