A popular criticism of Australian filmmaking seems to be that many of the idioms Australians agree upon as inherent to their culture, actually fit squarely into what could be described as ‘kitsch’. These idioms often find form in nasal aphorisms like ‘fair shake of the sauce bottle’, and ‘never dob in a mate’, and are very clunkily layered into many Aussie films and TV. Think Packed to the Rafters or the Lurid Australia. Animal Kingdom is the antithesis to the souvenir-from-home feel of Australian drama.
For once, it is not the landscape that is imbued with immense age, and the white newcomer with youth, but the opposite. We have an underworld scenario; characters ruptured from their connection with place or community, instead relying on a nigh-incestuous family unit to facilitate their careers in heroin dealing, dodging the police and keeping mum. This is an extraordinarily tense film, a circulatory system of poisonous characters, most notably Jacki Weaver’s matriarch ‘Janine’ and the unstable ‘Pope’ played to singularity by Ben Mendelsohn. The stressfulness of the family’s every day lives, steering and oversteering away from incarceration and violence never quite lets up, unless it is in such a way that audiences are forced to suspect a false calm.
Perhaps the most memorable moments in this piece are in its opening scenes, in which the vulnerable ‘J’ (James Frecheville) and his ill-fated mother doze on a couch in a brick-rise flat, Deal or No Deal garishly beaming into their deathly quiet living room. At the centre of this film is a masterful use of something like an Australian Realism; a grave, relatable and cosy set of familiar places, objects and family banter.
For example, the memorable final scenes unfold over a lacklustre barbeque in which two brothers eat supermarket sausages wrapped in white slices of Tip Top. Not every Australian could say they’ve swum in a desert hot spring or gulped down an Emu Bitter in a dusty corrugated iron shack, but I’m sure a far greater number have eaten a snag in white bread, or switched on the telly at five thirty to hear elated contestants gesticulate ‘No Deal!’ 9