Review date: 8-15-10
Release date: 8-13-10 (limited)
Runtime: 112 min.
Costume Designer: Cappi Ireland
Animal Kingdom is an Australian film about a teenaged boy embroiled in his family’s vengeful, criminal enterprise. It is remarkable for its compelling story and strong performances, and for the fact that it was helmed by a first-timer, David Michôd. This is a tale of familial dysfunction on a Shakespearean (or even Greek) level, but it takes place in present-day Melbourne. This is a gritty, greasy, smelly, violent film… just like I like them.
The story begins with seventeen-year-old Josh (James Frecheville) watching Deal or No Deal. He sits on the couch next to his… dead mother. She’s died from a heroin overdose. While this premise may initially seem comedic (a la Weekend at Bernie’s), nothing could be further from the truth. In this first scene, we see how naïve, helpless and dumbstruck he truly is, trying to cope with a loss he has perhaps long anticipated and yet never prepared himself to face.
Josh’s grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver), nicknamed “Smurf”, collects him from his apartment and brings him into her home. We are introduced to three of his bank-robber uncles: Barry (Joel Edgerton), or “Baz” as they call him, Darren (Luke Ford), and Craig (Sullivan Stapleton). Smurf comes alive in the company of her boys, kissing them full-on on the mouth for an uncomfortable duration. They are her sons, but they are also her “men”. They are hooligans, to say the least, and it is clear that Craig (who has been dealing drugs to pay the bills) is partaking of his own merchandise. Conspicuously absent from this family gathering is Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), the eldest of the four brothers.
The story unfolds and we come to understand that the boys have been robbing banks for some time. The police are on to them and seek revenge. They are particularly keen to find Pope, who has been in hiding. Meanwhile, Craig is in cahoots with a narcotics officer, who is giving him product to sell – he’s a dirty cop who keeps Craig apprised of the search for Pope.
Driving home from the meeting with the dirty cop, Craig puts a gun in Josh’s hand and makes him threaten some guys in a road rage incident. Feeling like he couldn’t refuse, Josh points the gun at the men. They flee, afraid for their lives. Josh is now a member of the family’s criminal enterprise.
Pope arrives back at Smurf’s house, and Josh watches the happy family reunion as if seeing monkeys on Mars. He’s never known this kind of family bond before – this part of his family had been totally absent while he was a child.
Barry/Baz goes to meet Pope at a grocery store to make plans. Baz tells Pope that he’s getting out of the family business, that he makes more money on the stock market. He tries to convince Pope to do the same. Fearful of the cops seeing Pope, the brothers exit separately.
Baz gets to his car and the cops arrive at his window. “Sorry guys, you just missed him,” he says with a grin. The cops: “That’s alright, we like you better.” Referring to Baz (who is unarmed): “He’s got a gun!!!” BLAM! The cops spray Baz’s car with his brains. Pope watches, catatonic, from a distance. He knows his brother died as a means for the cops to get to him.
And thus the war begins between the cops and the family.
Meanwhile, Josh’s girlfriend Nicole (Laura Wheelwright) is trying to help him. She asks her mom (Susan Prior) if he can stay at their house. Mom seems at her wits end with her teenaged daughter. Josh gets to stay, but somehow Pope enters the house and creepily puts Nicole in her bed. Josh catches him in the act, possibly saving Nicole from being assaulted. At this point, we begin to discover that Pope is a serious sociopath.
After Barry’s funeral (which we do not see), Pope demonstrates more strangeness when he suggests Darren is gay, because the suit he’s wearing “looks” gay. He prods Darren, telling him that if he wants to talk about it, he’s here to listen. Darren is unnerved. Pope then walks in on Josh taking a shower, pulls the curtain back, and orders the naked teenager to get him a car. “Why?” asks Josh. “Because I said so,” retorts Pope.
Josh steals and hotwires a car, delivering it to Darren’s house. Darren is inhaling a big bong-load, which irks Pope. There is testosterone in the air. The brothers storm out. Josh stays behind at Darren’s apartment.
Young cops arrive at the scene of the stolen car, doors open, windows smashed, in the middle of the street. All is quiet. They investigate the car. BLAM, BLAM! Pope and the brothers shoot the cops at point-blank range. It’s on.
Later that night, the SWAT team crashes Darren’s apartment and takes him and Josh to the station. Pope has also been arrested, but Craig is nowhere to be found. Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce) questions Josh, and he (Josh) gives the detectives a bunch of lies. Meanwhile, Smurf, Darren and Pope are having a meal at a diner. They realize Josh is still being interrogated and they start to worry. Smurf, sensing the anxiety rising in Pope, encourages him to start taking “his pills” again.
Once released, Josh again seeks refuge at Nicole’s house. The shooting of the cops is all over the news. Darren comes to the house in the early morning hours and takes Josh with him. Nicole’s mom is pissed off. Darren takes him to their lawyer’s (Dan Wyllie) home, where he is advised to keep his mouth tightly shut and to have a lawyer speak on his behalf.
We catch up with Craig, who is on the run. He goes to the outback home of his friend Rich (Andy McPhee), who is selling him a large rifle. Craig discovers a microphone/listening device planted at Rich’s house, and soon the cops arrive. Armed with the gun, Craig runs out into the outback and is soon taken down by the cops’ bullets.
Smurf falls apart. She is losing her boys, her men, her world. Pope blames her for Craig’s death. She starts to hit him, and Pope looks like he might retaliate. Josh steps in, and Pope comes after him murderously. Josh runs for it. Detective Leckie finds him. This time when he takes Josh in for questioning, his lawyer is there and Josh utters not a word.
Darren tells Josh that he needs to lose his girlfriend – she’s dead weight and potentially knows too much. Josh takes her to the bowling alley and breaks up with her. She is very upset and leaves tearfully. Detective Leckie is there, and threatens to arrest Josh for underage drinking if he doesn’t cooperate. Josh doesn’t, and they put him in the police car.
I’m going to stop telling the story right here. The rest of the movie is a thrill-ride, and I don’t want to spoil it for you. The ending is just too, too good.
The costume design for this movie is really interesting. It looks to me like the film was made on a fairly low budget, which suits the story and subject matter. I am guessing that the costume designer purchased most of the costumes from thrift stores. Surprisingly, for a film with so much violence, there are only a few scenes with stunts or blood that would require multiples. As a result, the costumes look perfectly, beautifully real. They are worn-in, sloppy when they need to be, and the garments are used and re-used in the film with ease. This family does not have a lot of money, and therefore not a lot of clothing, so the reuse helps to underscore their economic situation.
The cops are crisply attired in their uniforms, and Detective Leckie and his cohorts wear suits, shirts, and ties. Admittedly, they look better than American cops, that’s for sure. There is a great divide, visually speaking, between the grotty, grimy crime family and the clean-cut cops.
The color palette in this film is very tight. Most characters wear blues, greys, muted shades, with the occasional blood red. It’s an interesting choice. We see blood red on Pope and Josh, and we see bright red on Smurf. My Spidey-senses tell me this is intentional. Red is a strong design choice, and certainly the color was used in the scene to emphasize the anger, violence, rage, and intent of the characters wearing it.
As there are four brothers, they have four distinctly separate looks and silhouettes. This was superbly executed – Darren (young, cute) wears tighter-fitting t-shirts and jeans, clothing that emphasizes his physique. Barry wears polo shirts and jeans – he looks like a regular Joe, someone you’d never suspect to engage in armed robbery. Craig is a shirt-optional kind of guy, covered in tattoos. His clothing has more drug-fueled desperation than his brothers, and it looks like he would probably have bad body odor. He is unkempt and his clothing is distressed and grimy. Pope, in contrast, wears button-front plaid shirts, Hawaiian shirts, and windbreakers. He looks like a nerd, which adds a real sense of creepiness to his sociopath.
Smurf has the style of a retired hooker – sequined tunics, leggings, wedge heels, a lace dress to her son’s funeral, and makeup that looks like she’s slept in it for three days. She thinks she is still sexy, and uses her body and her style as a come-on.
Her jewelry is interesting – she has a pearl pendant that is featured prominently, and she wears yellow gold earrings, rings, and watch. It’s a trashy look, with a special nod to the makeup department for getting that crusty old eyeliner just right. It’s brilliant work. She looks like a faded crepe paper flower, wilted and dusty. Brilliant.
Josh is kind of a blank slate, emotionally speaking. He is incapable (on some level) of processing what is happening to him because he lacks emotional maturity. His clothing is therefore largely devoid of anything to register much character or personality. He wears t-shirts and jeans, simple things in bland colors that do not really make a statement. There are occasions in the film where he appears in all black or in a blood-red zip-front jacket that are quite strong visually. I think that setting him up in the bland costumes makes the moments of stark contrast (all black, or blood red) really pop. The costumes help to show the audience the changes within him. And the changes are serious. It’s very effective.
One thing I noticed in the film was the use of t-shirts with graphics or prints on them. This is a very, very tricky thing in film, especially used on characters who are violent or criminally inclined. Every graphic we use in a movie, whether it is on a t-shirt, or a lunch box, or piece of art on the wall, must be cleared by the film’s legal department. The film must contact the owner of the copyright (let’s say Nike, Spongebob Squarepants, or Armani Exchange) and get permission from that vendor to use the logo, graphic or likeness. The vendor usually wants to know who is wearing it (the actor’s name), and the context in which the graphic or logo is being used. In a case like this film, where it’s a bunch of bad guys doing horrible things, it’s an uphill battle to get mainstream vendors onboard. Nike doesn’t want a killer to wear the swoosh while he’s mowing people down with a machine gun.
So, my question to Cappi Ireland and her crew is – just where did these t-shirts come from? Did they come from friends who have t-shirt companies (believe me, it really helps!), or did they generate the graphics themselves? I am curious to know, because I thought the shirts all looked really good, really natural, and they did a great job making these costumes look “normal” without calling attention to the garments themselves.
There has been discussion that Animal Kingdom is based on Kath Pettingill, her family and/or the 1988 Walsh Street police shootings. However, this film has been made as a work of fiction, and is inspired by certain individuals and events. The film is contemporary, but it does feel like a throwback in its visual element.
I highly recommend this film – it is well made, well acted, and very thought provoking. I know that they didn’t have a ton of money to work with. The costumes here are so good, they truly defy the budget. Please see this film – it’s pretty extraordinary!!