Animal Kingdom: Yes, it’s good but …

by on June 9, 2010

in Australian film industry, Film analysis, Story structure

Animal Kingdom movie poster

Critics are raving about David’s Michod’s crime family drama and it has some exceptional elements but here I try to balance the hyperbole with a little critique.

I liked Animal Kingdom and you should absolutely go to see it. In fact, go see it now – before you read this post!

I think it has some great characters in Pope, Craig, Barry, Ezra and Smurf and the performances of Ben Mendelssohn, Jackie Weaver, Joel Edgerton and Dan Wylie – to name but a few – are fantastic. I admire the fact that a film about a crime family chose to focus on the family rather than the crime and some of the scenes are absolutely extraordinary. The cinema gasped when Pope picked up the sleeping Nicole – a great example of intense fear created without any actual violence. Hitchcock would have loved that. However, having said all that, the film overall didn’t deliver for me emotionally and there are a couple of reasons why.

The most obvious concern is the characterisation of Josh. In a film filled with exceptional characters, unfortunately the least interesting individual was the protagonist. Obviously, it’s hard for a young guy to compete with such a bunch of larrikins but I still feel he wasn’t as well-drawn as the other characters. The only adjective I can think to describe him is “passive” and we know how problematic that is in a lead character.

I could have lived with this if there was a scene early on that made us connect with the character but this – for me at least – didn’t happen. His mother overdosing should have been an opportunity to generate this empathy but because we come in after it’s happened – and before we’ve even met the protagonist – it doesn’t work on our emotions as I feel it should. We get the Call to Adventure but where was the Ordinary World?

Compounding this is his early voiceover. Some of my favourite films use voiceover (e.g. Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, Woody Allen’s Manhattan) but here Josh’s dispassionate insightful analysis of those around – within the first 10 minutes of the film – is cool and calm when surely, as he enters a freaky family environment, we should be feeling fear, confusion and disorientation. In a film where he remains largely mute and where there is no further voiceover, it was odd that the tension should be undercut in this way.

[UPDATE: Richard Corliss too queries Michod’s use of voiceover in his Time magazine review: “He’s a man with a slow, sure hand; his tracking shots are artful but not ostentatious; he trusts the viewer to suss out the family dynamic without much back story. (Odd, then, that he felt the need of J’s occasional voiceover narration, since it’s quite a bit brighter than the boy is, and anyone watching closely can figure out what’s going on in his mind: not much.)]

The film then ambles for a very long time. As I say, it’s great that they don’t have them committing crimes but we still need drama of some description and there just wasn’t enough happening early on to retain our interest. Specifically, nothing was happening to place Josh in jeopardy and, under this story construction, he isn’t in danger until after the cops get killed – a very long way in. In fact, we seemed to lose him entirely early on and I began to question whether in fact it was going to be his story.

Why was Pope held back early on? In his absence, the focus falls on Barry so when he gets killed it feels like a huge void has been left in the centre of the film. If Pope had been unhappy about Josh’s presence – and the young lad had only been protected by Barry – then Barry’s death could have had much greater dramatic effect – ratcheting up the tension immediately.

David Stratton lauds the film for its use of suspense but I’m afraid I can’t agree. Because we don’t bond with the hero as we should and because we don’t seem to be riding with him early on, the fear factor is diminished significantly. How can you care for someone you don’t really know?

I also think that in several places the writer/director has opted for shock over suspense – most notably, Barry’s demise, the car crash and the film’s climax. Shock has its place but what you gain in surprise you lose in fear and suspense.

I’ve asked several people about their thoughts on the trial element of the film and I haven’t found anyone – even among those who loved it – who wasn’t confused about what was happening here. We don’t need to know what Josh’s ultimate intentions are (think of Rick in Casablanca) but we do need to know what he wants others to think he’s doing and I didn’t have a clue. Again, without this clarity, suspense is sacrificed.

I didn’t mind the ending. It’s credible, understandable and vaguely satisfying but did it deliver catharsis? Not for this viewer. Yes, the passive character has finally acted, but it’s less a character arc and more a character blip.

Animal Kingdom is a very good film – definitely the best Australian film I’ve seen for some time. But is it worth the 4.5 stars David and Margaret awarded it? That puts it among the greatest films of all time and creates expectations that the film might struggle to fulfil. I will be intrigued to see how it goes at the box office.

What did you think? Have other reviewers been overly generous or have I been unnecessarily harsh?

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

snowballa June 23, 2010 at 12:01 am

Just watched the film and loved it. You seem to have the movie structually wrong. The cops get killed at the end of Act 1 (half-hour in) with Barry’s death being the inciting incident.

Barry wasn’t protecting J from anyone. Pope had no care for J until after the cops spoke to him. Barry’s death was significant in that there was no one to keep Pope in check anymore and thus we actually get to see this sociopath at work.

I had issues with J as well during the film but I was silenced by the ending. J’s goal was to survive, a basic human need that is severely threatened when he goes to live with his family of sociopaths. I loved that we couldn’t get in his head but it was clear that he was playing both sides against each other as the movie went on.

SPOILER ALERT: When J did not go to the police immediately after realizing Pope murdered his girlfriend, I though the movie was doomed. However, the ending shows the opposite was happening. Thus, I saw J’s actions in a new light. Kudos for Michod for trusting his audience instead going the Hollywood route and making everything super obvious. A movie that actually makes you ruminate on the events after you watch it. A rarity nowadays.

Allen June 23, 2010 at 6:38 am

Are the cops killed only half an hour in? That would surprise me. I am going to try to get a hold of the screenplay. It felt much longer than that to me. I was losing interest.

You’re right, Barry wasn’t protecting J and, Pope had no interest in J until after the cops spoke to him. That’s my point. Nothing happens that materially affects the protagonist until that moment which, it seemed to me, was well into the film, but perhaps I’m wrong. I was merely suggesting a way in which the early part of the film could have been more dramatic. In my humble opinion – and the box office would indicate my concerns aren’t shared by the cinema-going public – the early part of the film is unnecessarily slow.

You say that that you loved that you couldn’t get inside his head but my point about the voiceover was that we did get inside his head and it undercut the tension and empathy.

You loved the film. I recognise it has some good qualities but it didn’t work for me emotionally. You don’t like “Hollywood” films. I do.

Brendon October 27, 2010 at 10:41 am

I agree with you on this one Allen. All the characters were great except for the protagonist, who was simply dull. What I liked most about this film was the haunting soundtrack. Sam Petty – wow.

kim batterham November 24, 2010 at 9:02 pm

Finally seen the film and had a mixture of response’s. Agree with you allen that Josh is a blank page and because of this hard to engage with. I certainly felt the film was going away from being his story for quite a while, in fact I was beginning to wonder where it could go. The puzzle was solved for me when the drug squad mess up the hit on josh after the girlfriend is murdered and I began to see where it was all going to end. Josh makes his decision and from then on I new the acquittal was all about revenge. In a way you have a good setup for sequel in the godfather mold. Think about the Pacino and his coming of age moment. Animal Kingdom 2.
What really held me in was the wonderfully honest performances all around Josh coupled with artful cinematography,editing and sound. Extremely enjoyable.

stephen guest December 12, 2010 at 9:08 pm

haven’t seen the film but read the script and there was no VO – yahoo.

in fact, ‘J’s’ blankish character worked really well in the script as it allowed him (and us) to observe those sick fucks from a close-up, neutral and amoral perspective which an actively involved protag couldn’t.

cool script, must see the film!

Sandy B January 31, 2011 at 3:40 pm

I think you are wrong about his “passivity” . I found it compelling. He lived such a life at home that when his mom died he sat and watched TV, He was already numb to emotion and was now dealing with each hand as it was dealt to him. He actively escaped to his girlfriend’s house when he could….but it felt emotionless. But he was there…and trying to stay there.

I couldn’t stay with the movie because the violence was too intense for me.

Allen Palmer January 31, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Clearly lots of people have loved this film so not everyone shared my reservations. But most screenwriting manuals will warn you about the dangers of passive central characters and my personal opinion is that Animal Kingdom demonstrates several of the typical problems. You say he “actively” escaped to his girlfriend’s house, but that action does not actually involve conflict. Trying to stay there doesn’t externalise the conflict. Passive characters internalise their dilemma. This troubled me in AK. And I think it’s telling that the support characters were lauded but the actor in the lead role wasn’t. Is that down to acting ability or the role? I think it’s great that you found this compelling. It just didn’t do it for me.

Greg February 9, 2011 at 5:35 pm

basically your criticism is that the film did not follow screenwriting guidelines.

the writer was quite aware of the of the protagonist not portraying the traditional protagonist. this is not a flaw. think of an audience who prefers Fast and the Furious over No Country for Old Men because they felt the latter was boring. they would consider this a flaw in the film. but not following the format of the traditional action film does not mean it failed in some way.

if the protagonist produced reactions in some audience that the writer intended, then it is not flaw. even the intended reactions were not produced in you.

Allen Palmer February 9, 2011 at 5:48 pm

No, Greg, my criticism is not that it didn’t follow screenwriting guidelines. My criticism is that I didn’t engage with the protagonist and I got bored in the second act after the Joel Edgerton character was killed. My criticism begins with a gut reaction. I can then point to what the writer has done to lose me- the voiceover for example – and share that with screenwriters who are then free to apply or ignore it in their own work. If I only liked films that conformed to screenwriting guidelines, I wouldn’t have liked The Social Network – but I did.

lachlan dunk February 12, 2011 at 12:44 am

I think Allen’s criticisms should be deemed inadmissible, given the fact that he is incompetent as a screenwriter and must instead pursue a dead end career in pointlessly analysing them.
I know I have no authority in saying this, but all Allen writes are clichéd rom-coms so insignificant they miss out on the negative reviews they deserve.
Until Allen writes a screenplay that receives critical praise, equal in value to that of “Animal Kingdome’s”, he should consider adopting a modest and selfless personality; perhaps refrain from bragging about his superiority over the human race.
Either that or stop stealing oxygen!

Allen Palmer February 12, 2011 at 7:03 am

This is the funniest comment I’ve ever had. Thank you, Lachlan.

The only element that I’ll bother responding to is the bit about needing to adopt a “modest and selfless personality”. My post on Animal Kingdom, like my analyses of all films I would hope, is respectful and balanced. I point out some things I like and some things that I think haven’t helped the drama. And anyone who has been in one my classes will know I go to great lengths to say that my opinion is only one opinion. I know what works for me in films and I encourage my students to work to understand what works for them. Thanks for the tip, Lachlan, but I think after the career I’ve had I’d say my ego is pretty much in check, thanks.

lach February 12, 2011 at 11:23 am

Cool ones. Glad you found it funny (you did didn’t you).
P.S sorry I spelt Kingdom’s with an (e).

egriff March 28, 2011 at 7:57 am

Why so harsh Lach?! That was uncalled for.

Olive April 7, 2011 at 8:36 am

Sandy B, is your last name Burton?

Martin April 22, 2011 at 4:50 pm

After reading this and trawling around this blog I’m actually really glad I didn’t get into AFTRS and now I can actually see where the rot sets in..another apostle of Vogler, McKee, Field, Joseph Campbell approach to screenwriting…boooooorrrrinnnngggg. I don’t think Lachlan was being harsh at all…I think he was spot on. I mean this:

“David Stratton lauds the film for its use of suspense but I’m afraid I can’t agree. Because we don’t bond with the hero as we should and because we don’t seem to be riding with him early on, the fear factor is diminished significantly. How can you care for someone you don’t really know?”

Isn’t that the basis of our whole society..caring for people you don’t know? Welfare, hospitals, soup kitchens?

When J was running down that street and Pope was chasing him I was hoping to hell Pope didn’t catch him….the suspense and sense of dread was all over this film. I recently watched the film on DVD and it was even better, have read the script and all I can say is David Michod..well done.

If this is the kind of advice you’re dishing out at AFTRS…god help our little cottage industry is all I can say.

Allen Palmer May 1, 2011 at 7:35 am

“‘How can you care for someone you don’t really know?”

Isn’t that the basis of our whole society..caring for people you don’t know? Welfare, hospitals, soup kitchens?”

So, what you’re suggesting, Martin, is that the writer doesn’t need to engage the audience with the character. We can just rely on their general sense of charity and humanity towards all God’s creatures? Good luck with that approach.

I would also note that the level of vitriol from fans of Animal Kingdom is extraordinary. I make some positive comments about the film but question elements of its characterisation and structure and become the subject of personal attacks.

This is a site that explores what works and doesn’t work in screenwriting. If you want a site that bows and genuflects in the general direction of David Michod, you’re in the wrong place. You’d be looking for the Animal Kingdom Facebook page.

Tom May 5, 2011 at 10:34 am

@Martin..I’m not sure the personal dig adds any gravitas to your argument, maybe what you’re trying to say is that we can have a common sense of empathy for the inherent dread and fear we all feel, regardless of how well we know a character. Its like when you see something shocking on the news, you might not know the person , but you can feel terrible for the person and what they’re going through.
Not sure I agree with all of your comments Allen about AK. I think the main character of J was reflective of a lot of young men. Not highly animated, a little stoic, a wall built up over years, having witnessed his mother probably shooting up etc. having worked for years in trauma, he seemed like many of the young men I have treated over the years, scarred from the cold world outside.
For me it didn’t worry me that I didn’t know the main character so much, because the film was a slow burn and a study of a brood of sociopaths and the evil they inflict…it was a film about mood and character, not your heroes journey, and I find it refreshing that those films can exist

Allen Palmer January 11, 2012 at 10:40 am

In response to Snowballa, I finally got around to reading the screenplay, and the cops don’t get killed half an hour in. It happens on page 43 in a 113 page script. Barry getting killed happens on page 28 – which makes it the more likely Act 1 Turning Point. I had also thought the film needed more set-up before J’s mother OD’s, and there are three additional pages before that happens in the screenplay. Josh’s Voiceover, which I felt undermined the tension early on, is not in the screenplay.

Surly Santa January 20, 2013 at 10:19 am

Why does Baz get shot?
There are 2 events that move the plot.
His mother’s OD, and Baz getting shot.
Is it just a random event by crooked cops?
There is no way Baz was going for a gun, or that a gun was apparent.
And the police were not threatened by his smarmy ways.
Although the scene was sudden and completely unanticipated, in the end it all seems so artificial.
Its been a few days since I watched the film, and that scene is left rattling around in my head.
Any insight would be appreciated.

I agree the passivity of the protagonist lends a certain dullness to the viewing experience. I understand how his disconnectedness is a survival mechanism, but I would think there would be an underlying anxiety that would express itself unconsciously. Nothing is revealed about his character during the entire story that lends itself to the ending.

Lastly I disagree about the Godfather analogy. Al Pacino’s character displays moral courage and quiet strength. He enlisted against the wishes and authority of his family, and later becomes a decorated combat veteran. Only later does he use his power for a criminal enterprise. Nowhere in the film do I see innate Power in our protagonist. He is damaged beyond all repair. Outside of a crime of passion, I dont see his character resisting Pope, let alone killing him.

Why does Baz get shot? Now that sticks in my craw. . . the implausibility, unless I have missed something.

Great discussion!

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Gracie Anne April 21, 2014 at 11:13 am

Allen, I think you have hit the nail on the head. Of course, each person is entitled to their own opinion, and it just so happens I think yours is right! To be honest, I thought the film would have been decent, given the cast, but I was very disappointed. Guy Pierce was the only thing in the end remotely holding my attention. I am glad to see I am not the only one who thinks the protagonist was a bit of a bore too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Allen.

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