Animal Instinct and Family Ties

The sublime Animal Kingdom and why I can never watch it again.

Animal instinct and family ties – Animal Kingdom

There are some films I’ve seen repeatedly. I love them. Each time I watch I am comforted by the familiarity, like spending time with old friends. Sometimes I see something new within, or simply find myself delighting in the little details as I know the film and the dialogue inside out. These are my favourite films, the ones I’d put in any top film list if you asked me to.

There are some films I would put on my list, however, that I have only watched once and can never watch again. These are remarkable films, but the emotional impact is just too strong. Films I absolutely couldn’t bear to sit through again, because I know what’s coming this time.

Sometimes the reasons for watching a brilliant film just once can be obvious. I’ve seen The Elephant Man for example. It’s amazing but emotionally draining and I don’t need to put myself through that again. The same with Schindler’s List. It’s an important film to watch but I think I can be forgiven for a lack of repeat viewings. And don’t get me started on the emotional rollercoaster that is Watership Down.

Other films catch you unawares though, and your visceral reaction is like a sudden electric shock to your system. There’s no obvious reason why they get to you, they just do. There’s no need to watch them again as they stay with you. Sometimes you find yourself thinking about a scene out of the blue, or just a feeling, a look or an image burned into your mind. The way a certain line is delivered, like a knife twisting in your gut.

For me, one of those films is Animal Kingdom. Released nearly 10 years ago, the Australian family crime drama directed by David Michôd tells the story of teenager Joshua ‘J’ Cody, who has to move in with his grandmother and uncles after the sudden death of his mother. But his new family are a troubling proposition, heavily involved in the suburban Melbourne crime scene.

It’s a dark and brutal film, its ordinary setting within dull suburban streets adds extra layers of menace, jarring with our usual perception of criminality and underworld affairs. The performances are nuanced and low-key, no American histrionics or French stylistic touches to distract you from the callous, barbaric actions of the characters. This isn’t the usual gangster film experience, it’s a slow paced but stomach churning journey. It’s unsettling. It gets under your skin.

For a crime film, it’s rather emotional. It is about basic survival of the fittest, about trust, loyalty and family ties. Ordinary actions and concerns sit alongside criminal activity. The family bicker, brothers get annoyed with each other and battle for their mother’s attention. A simple trip to the supermarket ends with offhand cruelty. The opening scene itself is unexpectedly shocking.

Our view of the family is through quiet and awkward newcomer J (James Frecheville). There’s no bravado with him, just fear. His uncles are intimidating, wonderfully played by Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Sullivan Stapleton and Luke Ford. Mendelsohn’s rattling performance as the alarmingly unpredictable coiled spring Pope stands out, as does Guy Pearce as the good cop intent on stopping the family.

But the scariest prospect is family matriarch Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody, played by Jacki Weaver with mesmerisingly sinister undertones. Her version of motherly love still gives me shivers. I can hear saying ‘sweetie’ in my sleep.

Each plot twist unsettled me and lingered in my mind, long after the closing credits. Films can touch your emotions in different ways. Some, like Animal Kingdom produce a visceral reaction that leaves you reeling.

I’m a big fan of Australian cinema, and Animal Kingdom is a brilliant example, a film beautifully executed and performed. It immediately entered my list of ‘favourite’ films. But it got to me, absolutely and profoundly, without reason. I can’t explain why, it just did, and it was too much. I would definitely recommend you see it, just make sure it’s without me.


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