"Animal Kingdom"

David Hudson

David Michôd's Animal Kingdom screens tonight at 9 at the Walter Reade Theater in New York as part of the Film Comment Selects series before its wider release on Friday. Reviews have been mixed.

"Animal Kingdom wrongly assumes certain characters deserve empathy simply because they're protagonists," argues Nick Schager in Slant. "A Melbourne crime film cast in a familiar mold and awash in unwarranted pretentiousness, David Michôd's debut concerns the illicit odyssey thrust upon J (James Frencheville), a 17-year-old who, after his mother's OD death, goes to live with his grandmother and uncles — all stick-up artists — he'd previously been kept away from. As envisioned by Michôd and embodied by Frencheville, J is a complete and utter nothing, a cipher whose expressionless mug doesn't mask deep, conflicted emotions, but instead reflects total blankness. As the audience proxy who provides entrance into this clan's nefarious business, J makes so little impact that engagement is immediately stymied, though Michôd's penchant for torpid clichés and grand aesthetic embellishment is also significantly to blame."

"Seldom is a debut feature handled with such assurance and intelligence," writes Laura Kern in Film Comment. "It's no wonder the film walked away with the World Cinema Jury Prize at Sundance this year and recently opened to near-unanimous praise on its home turf. Michôd, a former editor of Inside Film magazine, is a founding member of Blue-Tongue Films, a collective of young, primarily Aussie talent — writers, directors, actors, stuntmen — who work in music videos, shorts, and features. Australian film history has always been intriguing, but lately it's been those in front of the camera who've stolen the spotlight. Not since Peter Weir broke through in the late 70s (along with his contemporaries in the so-called Australian New Wave) has the country produced a filmmaker with as much promise as Michôd."

"Apart from a stuporous hero, what makes Animal Kingdom more nihilistic than its genre counterparts is the almost complete lack of justice, of cause and effect, of anything but naked displays of dominance," writes New York's David Edelstein. "Toward the end of the film there's a heavily sexualized murder that I found too upsetting and disgusting for the movie to bear. Good as Animal Kingdom is, it's not deep or illuminating enough to carry the weight of that particular death. It is good enough to bear the weight of the memorable last line: 'It's a crazy fucking world.'"

Earlier: Reviews from Sundance from Ryland Aldrich (Twitch), Brandon Harris (Filmmaker), Noel Murray (AV Club) and ST VanAirsdale (Movieline). Interviews with Michôd: Alex Billington (FirstShowing), Capone (AICN), Michael Guillén and Eric Hynes (Voice). Michôd offers his all-time top ten list (for now) at Ioncinema as an addendum to Eric Lavallee's profile.

Updates, 8/11: "The strength of Animal Kingdom is its slow-building fatalism; the criminals' luck runs out, but then finds depressing extension via an out-of-left-field collaborator." Joshua Rothkopf in Time Out New York: "It's a movie that has very little faith in authority, not even in Guy Pearce's righteous detective. The only law here is Darwin's."

But Michael Atkinson, writing in the Voice, finds that the film "pales beside the uneasy charge delivered by another recent-ish Australian film about three criminal bros: Rowan Woods's The Boys (1999), a nightmarish, neo-Cassavetes bolero also set largely in the mother's house, with David Wenham's wrecking-crew nutcase ex-con inciting a nerve-wracking degree of dread. Woods wasn't focused on much besides the purgatorial space between people, whereas Michôd wants a Greek epic but doesn't have the material."

"Animal Kingdom is the summer's black valentine to those for whom a visit home means watching your back," writes Nicolas Rapold in the L Magazine.

More interviews with Michôd: Brandon Harris (Filmmaker), Adam Keleman (Slant), Nathaniel Rogers (Tribeca Film), Gabe Toro (Playlist) and Alison Willmore (IFC).

Update, 8/12: "Because Animal Kingdom is so richly suffused with atmosphere and style, you could almost float right past the deficiencies in its story in an admiring trance," suggests Michelle Orange at Movieline.

Updates, 8/13: "The intensity of the film's nihilism is underlined by Antony Partos's ominous semielectronic score," notes Stephen Holden in the New York Times. "The relative absence of gun battles and car chases helps Animal Kingdom build and sustain a mood of deepening dread."

At the AV Club, Noel Murray gives Animal Kingdom a B+.

Austin Bernhardt talks with Michôd for Interview; Ray Pride's interview is on video (7'45").

Matt Mazur interviews Jacki Weaver for PopMatters.

Update, 8/14: Salon's Andrew O'Hehir: "This isn't a film likely to have you hopping with joy about the future of humanity as you leave the theater; as the title suggests, Michôd depicts a realm of ruthless predation and survival. But it's a distinctive, ominous and hypnotic work of cinema."

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