Sunday, July 6, 2014

Animal Kingdom

ANIMAL KINGDOM            A-       
Australia  (112 mi)  2010   ‘Scope  d:  David Michôd

I'm lying alone with my head on the phone
Thinking of you till it hurts
I know you hurt too but what else can we do
Tormented and torn apart

I wish I could carry your smile and my heart
For times when my life feels so low
It would make me believe what tomorrow could bring
When today doesn't really know, doesn't really know

I 'm all out of love, I'm so lost without you
I know you were right believing for so long
I 'm all out of love, what am I without you
I can't be too late to say that I was so wrong

I want you to come back and carry me home
Away from this long lonely nights
I'm reaching for you, are you feeling it too
Does the feeling seem oh so right

And what would you say if I called on you now
And said that I can't hold on
There's no easy way, it gets harder each day
Please love me or I'll be gone…I'll be gone

I 'm all out of love, I'm so lost without you
I know you were right believing for so long
I 'm all out of love, what am I without you
I can't be too late to say that I was so wrong

—“All Out of Love” from the album Lost in Love, by Air Supply (1980), Air Supply - All Out Of Love - YouTube (3:50)

When was the last time there were not one, or two, but three brilliant films to come out of Sundance capable of being called Top Fifteen films of the year?  Umm…never.   

"Winter's Bone" (Grand Jury Prize Dramatic), #3
"Animal Kingdom" (World Cinema Jury Prize, Dramatic), #11
"Restrepo" (Grand Jury Prize Documentary), #14

A bit like Audiard’s 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #10 A Prophet (Un Prophète), only this one’s told from the perspective of life on the outside instead of life on the inside of prison.  Using a spare narration from a dull, socially inept, oversized teenaged kid, James Frecheville as Joshua, who in the opening sequence waits for the paramedics to arrive too late to help his overdosed mother.  This begins his journey with his new family, career bank robbers seen in a crime spree captured in black and white surveillance photos over the opening credits, who happen to be his uncles all living under the care of their notorious mother, Grandma Cody (Jacki Weaver), otherwise known as Mother Smurf, who has a face like a ventriloquist’s dummy with a constant smile etched on her face, a woman who just wants to be around “the boys” wherever they are and whatever they may be doing.  She is hilarious every time she instructs these cold-blooded criminals to give her a hug, as she feels she’s the emotional backbone of the family, keeping their volatile tempers under control.  Joshua is more an observer or innocent bystander who just happens to be there, as he could just as easily be anywhere, so nothing seems out of the ordinary to him as these are his relatives.  When he gets his first taste of what a gun can do, it’s more amusing than anything else, as no one gets hurt, but the gun certainly makes other hardened outlaws back off, which for his uncles is mere child’s play.  Without ever saying much, his quiet nature soon begins to arouse the suspicion of his uncles, exacerbated by their own insane paranoia that comes from excessive cocaine use, where they wonder who he might be talking to.  As the family is under 24-hour police surveillance, these nagging suspicions only grow more irritable over time.  When the police bring the whole family in for questioning, their paranoia goes overboard, thinking he’s just a kid, but he may be a weak link.  Interesting that this is another hair-raising story about a teenager who through no fault of their own becomes unwillingly initiated into the nightmarish adult world of their criminal families, which is the exact same subject of the other Sundance film, Debra Granik’s 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #3 Winter's Bone.  Each play out, however, as differently as possible.  Both are unflinching portraits of a criminal underworld rarely seen, this is tough and hard-edged, while Granik’s rural, outsider approach is more poetic and character-driven. 

The foreboding opening narration is wise beyond Joshua’s years, as he remarks “Crooks always come undone, always, one way or another,” which may as well be the intro to Kubrick’s meticulously unraveling perfect heist movie THE KILLING (1956).  He soon realizes why his mother kept him away from her family.  What we witness is a slow changing of the mood, where the arrogant confidence of the boys is replaced by the foul play of revengeful police work, where the police don’t play by the rules any more than the criminals do, which leads to small cracks in the armor, the first evidence of tiny quirks or idiosyncrasies, as behavior slowly becomes more erratic until eventually, for some, the blood begins to boil.  Innocently enough, Joshua finds a high school girlfriend, Nicole (Laura Wheelwright), whose family provides him a safe haven and a meal from time to time.  Bringing her home to the boys starts one of the best sequences in the film, as they’re simply sitting around on the couch to Air Supply’s “All Out of Love” (Air Supply - All Out Of Love) playing on the television, which perfectly describes the world spinning out of control around them, especially when Nicole is under the constant gaze of Uncle Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), the most sociopathic of the uncles, a man in hiding from the cops whose grasp of reality demands that the world must submit to him.  Next to him, the rest of the family could be considered ideal neighbors, as they keep their illicit drug activity strictly indoors.  But boys will be boys, and like a pack of wild dogs, eventually they turn on each other.  This film is about how it’s impossible to remain out of their grasp, despite Joshua’s best efforts to remain neutral, as evidenced by the use of Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting in Limbo” (Jimmy Cliff - Sitting In Limbo), as throughout, inert and silent, always under watchful eyes, he appears to be just a kid.  But one of the police captains (Guy Pearce) takes a special interest in Joshua, trying to become a father figure, trying to build his trust, all of which just pisses off his intemperate uncles even more.    

While it’s an unusual story about an unforgiving world, a pup growing up raised by a pack of wolves, Michôd’s ballsy and stylishly inventive way of telling the story adds a remarkable intensity throughout, as from the very start he pulls you into this world where it appears there’s no way out, slowly becoming more psychologically brutal, edited with a near perfect precision, using an exquisitely eerie sound design from Sam Petty, ominous electronic music from Antony Partos, slow-motion montages and a constantly moving camera from cinematographer Adam Arkapaw that seems to creep around the interior rooms wherever it goes, sometimes appearing as if out of nowhere, building up an extremely taut atmosphere of suspense, never knowing what monster will jump out of the dark.  It’s a disturbing film where everything we see falls under a cloud of dread and anxiety, where we can feel the nightmarish tension in the air, even as we are witness to moments of extreme horror.  They are not played out for graphic display, but are shown as it is, human beings capable of the most coldly calculated behavior, where the tension is ratcheted up to a fever pitch.  The deglamorized portrayal of Joshua’s family is nothing less than bone chilling, but it’s Joshua’s mood that needs to find a balance, that teeter totters between the protection of the police, as represented by Pearce, who ignores or is in denial over the murderous provocation within his own department, or the protection of his family, which is like sending a lamb into the lion’s den.  Either way, nothing appears safe.  But this is a keenly observant film that allows the initially apathetic Joshua the ability to show good instincts and make smart decisions, so as we follow his every move, we get into the constantly probing mindset of a teenage kid in desperate trouble.  Briskly paced, until the final moments, the audience never has a clear idea what’s going to happen other than it likely won’t be good.  There’s an everpresent dour tone, but also random moments of absurdity and humor, which when added to the menacing atmosphere of suspense make this an intensely appealing, yet utterly creepy film experience. 

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