I'm always fascinated by the cinematic line between likeable criminals in films and the real-life variety, which only rarely seem to fit into that romanticized ideal. Maybe it boils down to whatever level of sympathy one might have for them reflecting a certain, perhaps sub-conscious, desire to live beyond the law oneself, even if only vicariously.
For me, cat burglar would have been a cool vocation. Not the sneaking into people's homes and stealing their jewelry type; more like the subverting high tech security systems variety, gaining entry to an impenetrable fortress to swipe a super-rare jewel, or millions in bearer bonds or something. I'm sure this was shaped in some way by every thief film I'd seen from The Pink Panther to Die Hard. The '80s saw a trend of heist films like 1981's silly Green Ice and Michael Mann's atmospheric Thief that peaked with Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A. in 1985 and had finally crashed by 1987 when Whoopi Goldberg got in on the act with the atrocious Burglar.
But sometimes, a film comes along that doesn't sugarcoat, glamorize or render romantically the nature of living the criminal life and Animal Kingdom is just such a film, to its advantage and detriment.
Set in Australia, Animal Kingdom portrays the generational criminality of one Melbourne family, set against the real life backdrop of the extrajudicial killings of criminals by the police in the late '80s.
Joshua "J" Cody (newcomer James Frecheville) is a 17-year-old who, after his mother dies of an overdose, comes to live with his grandmother, Janine (Jacki Weaver) the matriarch of the Cody clan, and his uncles, Craig (Sullivan Stapelton) and Darren (Luke Ford). Another uncle, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) is responsible for a string of robberies with his friend Barry (Joel Edgerton), but Pope goes into hiding when he believes he's next on a hit list being checked off by the local Armed Robbery Task Force that has taken to settling things out of court.
When the cops execute Barry, Pope and his brothers decide to get vengeance, putting J -- a basically good, if stoic kid -- on the precarious edge of falling into the same life of crime as that of his family.
Written and directed by David Michôd, Animal Kingdom is a slow burn of a film that works as well as it does due to a smart, if meandering script, and the power of many of its performances. As one might expect from the title, Michôd's themes juxtapose the jungle of the criminal underworld with the hierarchy of a family that might resemble a wolf or lion pack, except their human natures lack the loyalty that even those animals possess.
As the ramifications of Pope and Craig's revenge tighten the noose around their collective necks, the bonds of family are pragmatically tossed aside when J comes under suspicion for saying too much to a straight arrow detective, Leckie (Guy Pearce) and Pope's vicious sense of self preservation is revealed as he stops at nothing to insure that he never sees the inside of prison cell, and his actions ultimately force J to preserve his humanity by seeking his own atonement in vengeance.
While that sounds pretty intense on paper, though, Animal Kingdom's pace is a bit of a drag. I'm kind of conflicted because I enjoyed that fact that the story was never particularly predictable and its unhurried narrative was punctuated by naturalistic plot turns that pull you into the lives of the characters and inform you of the depths of their twisted duality. But the film's sometimes-obvious thematic strokes seem unformed and not as profound as the film thinks they are. I was interested in these people, but even with J, the films sole protagonist aside from Leckie, I couldn't bring myself to care about them very much. You aren't really supposed to like them, much less want to be them, but I wasn't particularly invested in them.
It's a powerful film, and an unflinching study of familial dynamics and the performance from Medelsohn in particular is hard to take your eyes off of. As Pope, he crafts a memorable, almost entirely unsympathetic sociopath, whose cold bloodedness is only superseded by the reptilian Weaver as the, quasi-incestuous, black widow of the clan, Janine. Her performance was the one that cut closest to a Lynchian archetype of feminine evil, and thus her turn felt a little out of place in its theatricality.
Frecheville, as J, is our narrator and while he elicits empathy, his performance is so understated as to seem non-existent. That allowed me to buy into the character. It is a subtle turn that lacks pretension but also seems muted amongst the more effected performances from the rest of the cast, including the always-solid Guy Pearce.
It's a well-made movie loaded with good performances (and a couple of really memorable ones), captured with a gritty eye in its straight-forward cinematography and boasts a haunting score. But in its grimness, Animal Kingdom misses a deeper truth that its naturalistic construction should have captured.
Growing up in the '80s, I had more than a healthy dose of nuclear paranoia. Between the cinema of the time -- I remember being solidly freaked out by films like Miracle Mile and The Man Who Saw Tomorrow -- Carl Sagan's descriptions of nuclear winter and the general pitch of Cold War hysteria in the build up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, I spent a large portion of my early teen years convinced we'd all be dead at best, and at worst eating people steak in a radioactive, post-apocalyptic hellscape before the end of the 20th Century.
But that didn't happen (Nostrodamus was wrong?!) and I had happily reverted to a state of little fear about seeing a mushroom cloud on the horizon on my way to work some morning. Countdown to Zero fixed all that 'ignorance is bliss' shit pretty quickly, though.
Countdown to Zero takes a look at the state of nuclear proliferation -- and it's not very pretty. Taken in three parts, the film examines the three ways in which nuclear mass destruction might most likely be caused, while hammering home the point that, no matter how low the probability of some of these scenarios, any probability above zero means disaster is inevitable.
Taken from the text of JFK's anti-nuclear Sword of Damocles speech where he warns that our lives are hanging by the "slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness" it begins with the madness of terrorism, as the film details the insecure state of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in the former Soviet republics -- and even Moscow -- and the many thwarted plots of terrorist groups to lay hands on some to use in a weapon. That weapon, once the fuel is obtained, can be shockingly easy to build; and we can't be thwarting them all.
Worse, all it takes is a simple lead tube to render radiation detectors useless; making the smuggling of a load of uranium into the U.S. through our maritime ports disconcertingly easy, where, again, constructing a device to detonate it would be a near undetectable endeavor.
Add to that mix guys like M.A. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear physicist whose access to the country's weapons program caused him to go into business for himself, and the ghosts of my old fears were prodded into semi-consciousness.
But, accident and miscalculation pose equal, perhaps more likely, threats. Sure, everyone remembers the Cuban Missile Crisis, but how many knew or remembered the January 1995 U.S. missile launch -- of a device to study the aurora borealis -- that came within a hairs breath of triggering a Russian nuclear counter-attack that was only averted because Boris Yeltsin plainly didn't believe the U.S. would attack unprovoked (back when that used to be true)?
Or, that for years it was an open secret that the 12-digit codes used to launch missiles from their bases were set to straight zeros and that any soldier manning one of those silos could have launched an all out attack of his own choosing? Accidental loads of nukes put on transport planes that fly over us at night? Lost weapons whose whereabouts are still unknown? The list of potential possibilities for a horrible accident or intentional calamity is depressingly long.
Not that Countdown to Zero is depressing as -- while it reminds that these things are a possibility -- much of the sane world is working to eliminate nuclear weapons, including the U.S. and Russia. It also reminds that most countries have no nuclear weapons and don't want them, and are uniting to clamp down on those that do. Even Ronald Reagan saw the wisdom of a world with no nukes.
Speaking of Reagan, his negotiating partner Mikhail Gorbachev pops up as well as slew of international leaders and their advisers, from Tony Blair, F.W. de Klerk, Jimmy Carter, Pervez Musharraf, James Baker and Zbigniew Brzezinski as they detail their dealings with the nuclear issue and the geopolitics and power shifts that occur when proliferating countries seek the bomb.
Valerie Plame Wilson offers her insight along with a collection of writers and departmental spokespeople to paint a complex picture that the film renders clearly and compellingly with a nice visual presentation. Countdown to Zero is a good-looking film, well told.
And it's an important bit of advocacy filmmaking that's revealing and darkly compelling. But despite its under layer of hopeful optimism Countdown to Zero's thesis won't leave you feeling all that hopeful. But it won't leave you feeling bored, either.
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