Animal Kingdom: The First Great Drama of Sundance 2010

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After the disappointment that greeted such early darlings as Howl and Hesher around Park City, word finally started getting around late Friday about what people like. You know we're into the documentary Restrepo, and I've heard promising news about Boy and The Freebie -- just another few I'm going to have to add to the growing list of Sundance must-sees. But I've got one to toss on to the others: A nuanced, nasty little Australian crime import you'll be hearing (and hopefully seeing) about called Animal Kingdom.

Writer/director David Michôd unveiled the world premiere of Kingdom Friday night for a packed Egyptian Theater crowd, from whom shrieks and gasps emitted throughout the film. They started early, in fact, from the first scene's ironic jolt straight through to the final scene's shocking act -- all just another few moments in the life of the Cody family. High among Melbourne's most wanted, violent bandits, the Codys comprise a cluster of brothers, their doting mother Smurf (Jacki Weaver), and, not long after the film begins, 17-year-old Joshua (James Frecheville), forced to reconnect with his estranged uncles and grandmother virtually by default. Each has his quirks, but virtually all orbit around the trades of robbery, drug trafficking and other hardcore mischief that draws Joshua in with immediate results -- namely (and unfortunately) being an unwitting accomplice to a horrific crime perpetrated by the uncle commonly known as Pope (Ben Mendelsohn, oozing evil). Once collared by the cops, Joshua's usual reticence weakens as Det. Leckie (Guy Pearce) seeks answers.

This first brush with the law results in a slow and total unraveling of multiple lives, which Michôd depicts with the poise, intellect and a minimum of the too-cool stylistic flourishes usually reserved for Michael Mann. Mostly, though, he reinvents straightforward genre trappings -- the hothead too crudely ambitious for his own good, for example, or the sinister underworld lord -- as conduits for a new generation of crime story, one for an age where the family matriarch sincerely tells her bloodthirsty son, "Maybe you should go back on your medication" and where 21st-century paranoia might as well be in the water. The only one seemingly immune is Smurf, whose maternal warmth belies a functional knowledge of how to do more for a crime family than simply cook.

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Michôd had previously attended Sundance with his short films Crossbow and Netherland Dwarf, the latter of which he missed in Park City while he was filming his feature debut Kingdom. It was probably the right call; the elegance of his script reflects the 10 years he spent developing it, and the cruelty on hand here is the kind that only deepens and darkens with age. Truly ghastly shit goes down in Animal Kingdom -- not in the hoary, mobster kneecap-shattering sense, but in the sense that once a certain sociopathy takes hold of a person, his or her capacity for destruction is boundless. To watch a young man (not to mention his high-school sweetheart) deprived of his relative innocence on such matter-of-fact terms -- by so many parties on each side -- is nothing short of gruesome.

Add those subtle (and not-so-subtle) shocks to the sublime performances by Michôd's ensemble and moody, expressive cinematography by Adam Arkapaw, and the reboot of the American crime saga -- the birthright of heirs to Mann, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and select others -- may actually have its roots Down Under. Who knew? Maybe everyone -- and soon if Sundance buyers are smart.



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