The Criminal Family – an enthralling species
This debut feature film by Australian filmmaker David Michôd is pure, unadulterated, exhilarating brilliance. With hints of Scorsese (to my mind Goodfellas and Casino) and Michael Mann (evoking Heat and The Insider), he had me at Hello. Well, in this instance, the understated opening scene of a suburban heroin overdose in front of “Deal or No Deal”.
A crime drama which centres around a dysfunctionally engaging (or should that be engagingly dysfunctional?) family, we are swiftly brought into the cocoon of a matriarch and her three sons (to different, absent fathers) and orphaned grandson, Josh (J). As he moves in with his doting grandmother, he is instantly sucked into the vortex of a family constantly on the run from the Armed Robbery Division of Melbourne’s police force. As the police draw in, tensions are heightened and loyalties are tested. (Gosh, with those clichés I could have written the press notes.)
Except that the film is anything but clichéd, and the rewards are manifold. Every character is well-rounded (if a little, ahem, morally stunted) and there is great pleasure to be had from watching the four brothers’ very different personalities. The acting is universally superb, nuanced and naturalistic – from timid, silent Darren, to warm charismatic family-man Barry, to agitated tattooed Craig who cries in his mother’s arms when one of his brothers is shot. However, Ben Mendelsohn steals the show as the multi-layered Uncle Andrew, known as “Pope”, who is introduced as a furtive, somewhat weasly character, and whose slight speech impediment and nerdy checked shirts belie a sociopath who will do anything it takes to stay out of jail. Similarly, newcomer James Frecheville deserves special praise for his incredibly subtle performance, managing to convey the teenager’s conflicting feelings with scarcely the raise of an eyebrow. Add to this Jacki Weaver as “Mama Smurf” and a gaunt Guy Pearce as the gentle but determined cop, and you have everything you need for a superb gangster flick.
As director and writer, Michôd has tackled a major genre, the complexities of representing true crime stories as drama, and handled the realism of a contemporary setting with aplomb. But it’s the style of his film that has you sitting on the edge of your seat – fantastic photography, a perfectly pitched soundtrack (echoing Lisa Gerrard’s work on The Insider, herself Michôd’s original choice for composer), and extraordinarily gripping dramatic tension marks every single scene, right from the opening titles. I was particularly thrilled with a Goodfellas-esque sequence blasting Air Supply’s ’80s hit “I’m All Out of Love” while the camera circles to finally focus on Pope, setting up perfectly the sense of just what this man is capable of. I could watch this scene again and again, but nothing will be like the first time.
The phrase “white-knuckle ride” comes to mind, and in fact few films actually manage to keep the tension going for two hours. But Animal Kingdom leads us like the best of dance partners, not allowing us to tire but keeping us riveted and on our toes the whole time, before ending with the ultimate lift. I won’t fall out of love with this film for a long time.