David Michôd's Animal Kingdom is a story of a crime family--a group of petty criminals, actually--who sell drugs, rob banks, kill policemen, and randomly threaten hapless civilians. The story is told from the perspective of a seventeen-year-old nephew who has lived outside of the family for most of his life. Sounds good, right?
Well, to be honest, it really isn't. Part of this reason is one of the last movies I saw was Jacques Audiard's Un Prophète, which doesn't quite tell the same story, but does cover the not dissimilar narrative of a young male naïf who learns the ropes and then rises meteorically to run the criminal show. Un Prophète, however, is a far superior movie to Animal Kingdom.
The more I think about Animal Kingdom, in fact, the more I think that it wishes it were a Gus Van Sant movie. But Gus Van Sant would appear to know a lot more about building tension, casting, and cinematic poetry than David Michôd does. Too, Van Sant is not really interested in cold movies. His films have real affection for their protagonists and, indeed, for their supporting characters.
Michôd is highly critical of his characters, while simultaneously employing a Van Sant style of shooting those characters. The effect is bizarre to say the least, and I kept waiting for Animal Kingdom to lurch into real action, to ramp up its brutality, to ratchet up its tension. But the film simply never goes there. It is content, instead, to behave as though it is an emotional character study, revealing the inner workings of masculinity and family dynamics in an Australian crime family, when it is clearly nothing of the sort.
Two more things:
I want to point out that Michôd includes a direct homage to Van Sant in Animal Kingdom, when he has one of the characters sit watching the music video of Air Supply's "All Out of Love" after his friend has been murdered. I took this as a direct reference to the scene in Last Days when Van Sant shoots the video of Boyz II Men's "On Bended Knee" almost in its entirety.
The other thing I wanted to underline before I finish talking about Animal Kingdom is the fact that Un Prophète is totally great. It's a French prison movie about a young Arab (a naïf, like the young man in Michôd's film) who goes to work for the Sicilian mafia while in prison, learns to read, then learns Italian, then starts running his own setup while still in the clink. It's also simultaneously brutal, poetic, intelligent, and incredibly tension-filled, with a stellar central performance by Tahar Rahim. I highly recommend it.