starring Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford, Guy Pearce
written and directed by David Michôd
starring Mads Mikkelsen, Maarten Stevenson, Gordon Brown, Andrew Flanagan
screenplay by Roy Jacobsen & Nicolas Winding Refn
directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
by Walter Chaw David Michôd's Animal Kingdom respects its audience, a rare commodity during the best of times. The film flatters us by leaving exposition and backstory to our knowledge of anthropology--in fact, Animal Kingdom is best indicated by its unwavering reserve--a reluctance, almost--to say too much when slow, fluid tracking motions and static, medium-distance establishing shots may suffice. Consider a frankly gorgeous tableau late in the film as three people meet in Melbourne's National Gallery of Victoria: framed against an open space, Michôd allows an extra beat, then another, before continuing with his family gothic. The story isn't an afterthought, but the dialogue, however minimal, seems to be. The picture's told through its actions and its images and, in that way, reminds of a Beat Takeshi film, of all things, what with its focus on criminality and its enthralling slowness. If there's another indie demiurge to which Michôd pays obeisance, it's Michael Mann--and the success of the picture (as shrine to masculinity, as introspective character study) suggests that cribbing from Kitano and Mann, if it's as successful a larceny as this, can be successful in no other way.
17-year-old J (newcomer James Frecheville) was recently orphaned by his smack-addict mom and so finds himself taken in by Grandma Smurf (Jacki Weaver) and his three uncles: taciturn Darren (Luke Ford), crazy Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), and handsome Barry (Joel Edgerton)--bank robbers, all, targeted by a corrupt police force more interested in assassination than in imprisonment. J isn't really in trouble, however, until the appearance of eldest brother Pope (Ben Mendelsohn); after a night's misadventure, police inspector Leckie (Guy Pearce) targets J as the family's weak link, and the second half of the film is essentially a struggle for the kid's soul between demonic Pope and the not-exactly-kosher cops.
The bare bones of the story not unfamiliar, the meat of the film is the way that it honours its title. The onscreen violence isn't so much repulsive as it is frank and unremarkable. Rather, Animal Kingdom surprises when its characters show restraint, even fear--as when Pope takes a long time to decide (we think) whether to rape J's young girlfriend (another newcomer, Laura Wheelwright); or when macho Craig turns and runs, shotgun in hand, from the inevitability of his execution. Michôd builds the minor events with literary intuition. J's pathological reserve is interrupted for the only time in the piece in a crying scene in his girlfriend's bathroom that wouldn't be nearly as powerful had J's social retardation not gathered for almost the entire running time. Brother Darren's relationship with abusive Pope is paid off doubly as well, first in his impotence in the face of Pope's smothering sociopathology, then in the final scene of the picture, which lands with the same sort of dawning anxiety as the end of Let the Right One In.
Blessed with a cast capable of delivering in scenes like an insane person blissing out to Air Supply, or being hunted and put down like Sissy Spacek's dog in Badlands, props go especially to Frecheville, Mendelsohn, and the extraordinary Weaver, who earns the film its creepiest, most fraught moment in an exchange with Pearce's lawman in a supermarket. Animal Kingdom is lovely in its extraordinary patience, its obvious unwillingness to narrate its motives, and its wisdom in observing how it is that men organize themselves in tension and competition. It's a film made by someone with a good eye for how objects arrange in a shot, unafraid to present itself as a bit of an architectural Polanski penny-dreadful and, best of all and related to that, to pay homage to the right films in the right way.
Michôd thus shares a certain affinity with Danish wunderkind Nicolas Winding Refn, who, after making a minor arthouse splash with his Pusher trilogy and a marginally larger one with Bronson, hits one out of the park with his bizarre, demented, hallucinogenic Viking flick Valhalla Rising. Again, the cast is superb, starting with who might currently be the true heir to Toshiro Mifune's effortless macho, Mads Mikkelsen, playing a mute, one-eyed slave who somehow finds himself in a place that's either Heaven or Hell, but a New World regardless. It's the first film I've seen that feels so completely like Aguirre: The Wrath of God: it captures Herzog's suffocating, inescapable doom; his obscenity of Nature; his audacity in taking a mystery in history and fashioning around it a gruesome, catastrophic, affectingly spiritual mythology. It offers a story of the colonization of North America in the same way that Herzog encapsulated the age of conquest in South America. Look at a scene at around the mid-point wherein the hastily-dubbed One-Eye scuttles like Klaus Kinski, crablike, into the frame. Refn knows his sources, too.
The only way to explain the final scene, in fact, is to recognize that Refn understands his sources (and, again after the A Clockwork Orange-ish Bronson, has seen his Kubrick), and it calls into focus this idea that Refn is more likely to become a cinephile's filmmaker than a popular one. In truth, I don't know how Valhalla Rising is going to play except to an audience that will embrace it as Aguirre as conceptualized by Jim Jarmusch and executed by Terrence Malick. There's more to it than just surfaces, though, isn't there? A line of dialogue, one of only a handful in the film, has a Viking chieftain talk about the rise of Christianity pushing his people to the fringe: "They eat their own God. Eat his flesh, drink his blood. Abominable." Delivered right before the film's introduction of a band of Christian soldiers bound for a crusade in the Holy Land, it paints a vivid, unusual portrait of the early encroachment of Christianity on Northern pagan clans and extrapolates it brilliantly into the manifest genocide of whole new frontiers of indigenous peoples.
An at-times-shockingly violent film about the inception of one of the cruellest periods of Man, Valhalla Rising joins Refn to contemporary Carlos Reygadas philosophically and creatively. There's a magnetic, incomprehensible stillness at the centre of it. Scenes that shouldn't work, that don't make sense, do. Split into sections that speak to wrath, sacrifice, holiness, and masculinity, Refn announces himself as audacious to the point of arrogance, so conscious of his themes and interests (and so concerned about paying proper homage to his heroes) that he'll constantly be in peril of creating airless tributes and artifacts. But Valhalla Rising is a game-changer. Endlessly fascinating, comfortable with its heresy yet curiously holy for it, it's the root of fruitful conversations and boasts of boundless insight into how men create civilizations on the backs of their greed and their sex. A staggering moment amidst a film of them sees a group of naked women shivering on a hillside before a pyre of what we presume are their men. Another offers the revelation that One-Eye may be hiding an arrowhead in a wound in his hand. Another has a group of holy warriors plead to be released from doldrums. It's absolutely indelible--and, like Animal Kingdom, it's derivative, but of the right stuff and in the right way. Brilliant.