The Family I Had


An estranged mother and daughter face an uncertain future.

(2017) Documentary (Discovery/Smoke & Apple) Charity Lee, Ella, Paris, Becca, Kyla, Chaplain Donna, Khyman, Phoenix. Directed by Katie Green and Carlye Rubin

 

Certain things are just unthinkable. They aren’t possibilities most people ever have to consider. When we encounter them (generally in a news story or documentary) we are shocked and often we attempt to put ourselves in the shoes of those victimized. However, try as we might, we just can’t do it.

Charity Lee was working in a bar and grill one rainy Super Bowl Sunday near her home in Abilene, Texas when the police come to the bar and she is summoned to the manager’s office. Her little four-year-old girl Ella has been hurt. When she tries to get details, eventually the police admit that her baby is dead.

But that isn’t even the worst part; her son Paris, then 13 years old, murdered his little sister – strangling her and stabbing her 17 times with a kitchen knife. On the 911 call he sounds panicked and upset. He claims that he was hallucinating and thought that Ella was a demon.

How does one forgive a crime like that? If it is a stranger who committed the crime, it’s a bit easier I would imagine but when it’s your own flesh and blood – the son you carried for nine months, the boy who gave your life meaning and purpose – how do you forgive them when he takes your little baby away? Do you write him off, abandon him? Could you even try?

These are the impossible choices facing Charity and the filmmakers pull no punches but over the course of the 77 minute documentary they slowly reveal the other elements of the puzzle; Charity is a recovering heroin addict, her short-cropped hair and tattooed body proclaiming her intention to live outside the norm. We are introduced to Kyla, Charity’s mom from whom Charity has been estranged for years, even before the murder. It turns out that Kyla has some skeletons of her own in the closet including a whopper you won’t see coming. The apple may not fall very far from the tree after all.

I think this is one of those documentaries that is better viewed knowing as little as possible about the film when watching it. The revelations here aren’t “gotcha” moments by any means and while it may seem that there is a random element to how things are revealed, upon reflection I don’t think that’s the case as all. Green and Rubin unfold the story very much as you might hear it from the people involved themselves, with bits and pieces and fragments coming out in dribs and drabs. If you were to befriend Charity, chances are she wouldn’t hit you over the head with all of it at once. She would tell you about the horrific crime first and then slowly tell you other elements of the story as she gets to trust you. The storytelling, in that sense, is completely organic.

We meet Paris through a series of prison interviews and at first he comes off as a bright and fairly normal guy (he’s in his early 20s now). We also begin to learn that he is anything but normal; we are shown illustrations that he draws which are cleverly brought to life through the magic of computer animation. Glimpses of the darkness inside him make themselves known as we observe the disturbing pencil drawings; revelations from Charity also tell us, shockingly, that a psychiatrist warned of Paris’ potential homicidal tendencies more than a year before Ella’s murder.

We also view home movies of what appears to be a loving family with Paris doting on Ella. By all accounts the two were very close, making not just the fact that Paris murdered Ella so shocking but the brutality of the act comes as even more of a surprise. Even so, Charity at one point admits that she was afraid of her son even before he took her daughter’s life.

Charity has since had a third child, a beautiful little boy named Phoenix. Paris sends Phoenix letters with some fairly terrifying drawings and Charity admits that she is terrified of what Paris might do to Phoenix should Paris be released from prison which in about ten years he will be eligible to do. Charity clearly alternates between that fear and the desire to get her son the help he needs and that the Texas prison system is all too unwilling to provide. Charity is concerned and rightly so that Paris may leave the confines of the Texas penal system more of a monster than he was when he arrived.

Rubin and Green use only first names throughout the film, possibly to drive home the point that this could be any family. Certainly Charity’s wild child days and her general non-conformity will raise some eyebrows, but nobody who watches her with her kids will think anything less of her than being a supremely loving mother whose eyes alone reflect the grief and strain of having had to navigate an impossible situation. Regardless of what you think of her life choices, nobody should have to suffer as she has and continues to suffer to this day.

This documentary made it’s debut at the Tribeca Film Festival this past April and is currently airing on the Investigation Discovery channel but it shouldn’t be too long before it is available to stream. When it does, this is one film you should keep an eye out for particularly for those who are into true crime films. This is one of the best I’ve seen this year.

This is a searing documentary that will not leave your memory easily. There are those who no doubt will point to Charity and her checkered past with judgmental fingers, but it’s hard to do when you see how strong she is, how hard she tries and how she herself is growing and becoming better. One feels sympathy and might even wish that this woman and her family can find some sort of peace.

REASONS TO GO: A chilling look at how a seemingly normal, bright kid can be a dangerous sociopath. The dysfunctional family dynamic shown here raises some important questions. The animated drawings are nifty – but disturbing. The forgiveness can be transformational.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find this a little too shocking and disturbing to submerge themselves into.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug content and violent content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is partially set in Abilene, Texas which has more churches per capita than any other city in the United States.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Investigation Discovery
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Murder in Mansfield
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Atomic Blonde

The Dinner


Dinner is served.

(2017) Drama (The Orchard) Richard Gere, Laura Linney, Steve Coogan, Rebecca Hall, Chloë Sevigny, Charlie Plummer, Adepero Oduye, Michael Chernus, Taylor Rae Almonte, Joel Bissonnette, Onika Day, Miles J. Harvey, George Aloi, Stephen Lang (voice), Robert McKay, Patrick Kevin Clark, Seamus Davey-Patrick, George Shepherd, Emma R. Mudd, Laura Hajek. Directed by Oren Moverman

 

There’s nothing like a lovely, relaxing dinner with friends or family, particularly in a fine dining establishment. Great food, pleasant conversation, maybe a couple of glasses of a really nice wine…all the ingredients for a truly memorable evening. What could go wrong?

Paul Lohman (Coogan) is pretty sure not only that something could go wrong but that it inevitably will. A former history teacher, he’s working on a book on the Battle of Gettysburg, a historical event that carries much resonance for him. He’s always lived in the shadow of his older brother Stan (Gere), the golden boy who became a golden man. A United States Congressman, he’s mounting a campaign for governor with some considerable success. Stan is also working the phones to get a Mental Health bill through Congress.

Paul and his wife Claire (Linney), a lung cancer survivor, is gathering with Stan and his trophy wife Katelyn (Hall), Stan’s second wife, at one of those hoity toity restaurants where food is made to look like art and an obsequious waiter (Chernus) announces what’s in the dish beforehand. The conversation is pleasant enough if not congenial; there is clearly tension between Paul and Stan. But even with the constant interruptions of Stan’s assistant Kamryn (Almonte) there is business between them.

It has to do with Paul’s son Michael (Plummer) and Stan’s son Rick (Davey-Fitzpatrick). The two are, unlike their dads, the best of friends and one recent night the two got drunk and stranded at a party. They went looking for an ATM to get cab fare and instead found a homeless woman (Day). What happened next would be shocking and horrible and could not only ruin the lives of these young boys but that of their parents as well and as the meal goes on and secrets get revealed, we discover the fragility of Paul’s mental state and Claire’s health and the truth behind Stan’s first wife Barbara (Sevigny).

The film is based on a 2009 bestseller by Dutch author Herman Koch, only transplanted from Amsterdam to an unnamed American city in the north. Koch was apparently extremely disappointed in this version of his novel (it is the third film based on it) and walked out of the premiere and declined to attend the afterparty. I can’t say as I blame him.

I have to admit that I was disappointed with this film. It had everything it needed to be an artistic success; a compelling story, a terrific cast and a respected director, among other things. Unfortunately, Moverman chose to overload the film with flashbacks which disrupt the flow of the story and frankly become irritating – as an audience member, I wanted to see more of the dinner itself. However the extremely volatile situation leads to much storming away from the table in a fit of pique. This is the most childish set of adults (with the exception of Stan) that you’re likely to meet. In fact, one of the things I disliked about the film is that none of the main characters has anything resembling redeeming qualities. They are all so unlikable that I don’t think you could get through a meal with any one of them, let alone all four.

It’s a shame because it wastes four strong performances.  Linney in particular does some stellar work as the self-delusional wife who refuses to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that her little angel is a sociopath. Coogan, better known for comedic roles such as The Trip makes for a fine dramatic actor here and rather than playing a mentally ill man for laughs, he makes the role less rote. There is pathos yes and an element of humor but it is a realistic portrayal of a man whose demons are slowly winning the war inside him. Gere and Hall distinguish themselves as well.

The movie feels pretentious at times. There’s an extended sequence where Paul and Stan visit the Gettysburg Battlefield. It is a good looking sequence, shot through filters and utilizing collages and Stephen Lang narration of the various stops on the driving tour but at the end it feels almost like an addendum, not really part of the movie and certainly not needing that length. I get that Paul feels that Gettysburg is an analogy for his own life but it seems to be hitting us over the head with a hammer.

This is a movie I would have loved to at least like but ended up not even able to admire. Moverman would have been better off spending more time at the dinner table than away from it; certainly some context was needed and I’m sure he wanted to stay away from making the movie feel stagey but at the end of the day it ended up shredding the movie like it had been through a cheese grater. This is a bit of a hot mess that can well take a back seat to other movies on your must-see list.

REASONS TO GO: The film is organized by course which is nifty. Good performances by the four leads.
REASONS TO STAY: None of the characters have much in the way of redeeming qualities. The overall tone is pretentious and elitist.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing content of violence and cruelty, adult themes and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third onscreen collaboration between Gere and Linney; Primal Fear and The Mothman Prophecies are the other two.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Carnage
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Colossal

Stray


Running with scissors? How about showering with scissors?

Running with scissors? How about showering with scissors?

(2015) Psychological Thriller (East Meade Street Gang) Gabrielle Stone, Andrew Sensenig, Sean Patrick Foster, Dan McGlaughlin, Alexandra Landau, Samantha Fairfield Walsh, Arita Trahan, Ben Lyle Lotka, Paul McNair, Scarlett Robison, Ana-Maria Arkan, Joe Koch. Directed by Nena Eskridge

 

It is said that no matter how far or how fast we run, the past always catches up with us. I think that’s pretty much true; after all, who can run from what we carry with us everywhere we go?

Jennifer (Stone) arrives in the idyllic small town of Chestnut Hill as a stranger, but she quickly finds a job at a local bar and a house thanks to the trust of lonely Marvin (Sensenig). When Jennifer announces that she’s pregnant, she wastes no time pointing the finger of fatherhood at bar owner Greg (McGlaughlin). As you can imagine, Greg’s fiancée Sarah (Walsh) doesn’t take this news all that well.

As it turns out, Jennifer has something of a checkered past and it’s about to roar into quiet Chestnut Hill like a tornado, with Jennifer at the center. Jennifer’s actions are violent and vicious but she’s had to be that way given what she’s been through. Can she leave that past behind or will she finally be able to create the family she’s yearned for all her life?

This is a micro-budgeted indie (i.e. under $100K budget) and the feature debut of Eskridge, who is an industry veteran in the Northeast. She’s very quick to point out that this isn’t a horror film although there are some horrific elements here so those who are sensitive to such things should be aware of it. No, it’s not a gorefest by any stretch of the imagination; she calls it a psycho-drama and that’s a fairly apt description, but we do have to look in some pretty dark places before the film is over.

With films of this nature, there is a need to keep in mind the circumstances behind it; you can’t hold it to the same criteria that, say, a Martin Scorsese film would be held to. There is a learning curve to filmmaking and it is rare that a first feature microbudget thriller is going to be mistake-free and this one isn’t but all the same this is a very good looking film. Kudos have to go to cinematographer David Landau who puts in some impressive images, using light and shadow effectively. His montage of pastoral scenes at the beginning of the film that is broken up by a scene of sudden violence is masterfully edited.

The film falls down a bit more in the more human elements. The writing is spotty; some of the dialogue doesn’t sound like things that people actually say to each other, and the plot is reasonably predictable and upon occasion, contrived. I don’t mind the occasional contrivance but the filmmaker shouldn’t make a habit of it. I felt that some of the plot points didn’t feel organic.

I don’t like to bash actors and this might well be Eskridge’s inexperience showing through but the acting is stiff. There are scenes when couples are supposed to display affection for one another or when characters are supposed to show attraction to another character, but the body language doesn’t convey it. One can forgive that in a high school drama production but it’s hard to ignore when you can see the stiffness in the way actors hold each other or cuddle. It takes you right out of the film as you realize that these are actors acting, rather than characters being captured on film. The difference is important.

One point is that Jennifer’s violent tendencies are given away too early in the film. I think it would have added to the suspense of the movie had her violent streak been revealed half way through and THEN the back story start to come into play. In a thriller, or psychodrama if you will, it is more effective to keep audiences off-balance when it comes to the lead character’s motivations.

That isn’t to say this is a horrible film; it isn’t. It’s certainly flawed but there are some moments where things click and you can see that Eskridge has some talent and some of the actors do as well, particularly Stone. It also should be said that it does improve as it goes on and the ending is pretty nifty. As I said, there is a bit of a learning curve and this is more of a film at the beginning end of it. The good news that this might be a movie you go back to watching after some of the cast and crew have gone on to bigger and better things and take a gander of what they were up to at the beginnings of their careers.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the acting is stilted. There are a few plot contrivances that take any sort of organic feel the movie had generated.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is violence, sexuality and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Gabrielle Stone is the daughter of famed actress Dee Wallace Stone.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rebound
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: Living in the Age of Airplanes

Nightcrawler


Louis Bloom sneakin' around.

Louis Bloom sneakin’ around.

(2014) Thriller (Open Road) Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton, Riz Ahmed, Rick Chambers, Holly Hannula, Michael Papajohn, Marco Rodriguez, Ann Cusack, Kent Shockneck, Pat Harvey, Sharon Tay, James Huang, Bill Seward, Leah Fredkin, Jonny Coyne, Nick Chacon, Kevin Dunigan, Kiff VandenHeuvel, Carolyn Gilroy, Kevin Rahm, Christina de Leon. Directed by Dan Gilroy

The local news has its back to the wall these days. Even though it continues to be a main source of news for most people, it has become, like the newspaper before it, largely expendable in the face of the internet. With people wanting the news in a more immediate manner these days, news directors have their hands full trying to get footage that will draw viewers in. It has become more economically feasible for them to rely increasingly on third party news gathering agencies, who follow police scanner radio calls to the more lurid types of stories to satisfy the hunger for misery, bloodshed and death.

Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is a man who’s been hit hard by the economic downturn. Scrounging around for scrap metal to sell to a construction site, he isn’t above stealing – and if need be, taking down a night watchman (Papajohn). He even hits up the construction site manager (Rodriguez) for a job, but who would want to hire a thief? Disappointed, Louis heads on home but on the way there comes upon an accident. He also runs into one of those third party news gathering agencies, led by Joe Loder (Paxton) who explains that he doesn’t work for a specific television station but instead sells to the highest bidder. He doesn’t make a ton per story but it’s a lot more than Louis is used to. Intrigued, Louis gets himself a camcorder and a police scanner.

His baptism by fire comes at a shooting; he manages to get the site shut down by the cops when he crosses the line, incurring Loder’s disgust. Still, he has a good eye and that catches the eye of Nina Romina (Russo), the news director at KWLA, the last place station in local news in the City of Angels. He makes a sale and gets some good advice. Encouraged, he hires a navigator (Ahmed) and soon is making regular sales.

Louis however doesn’t exactly have a moral compass and he continues to increasingly take chances – pulling bodies away from where they had been so he can get better light. However, when he arrives at a home invasion ahead of the police, he leaves the line far in the dust, putting himself and his partner at risk and perhaps other innocent people as well. Louis is doing what he loves and doing it well, but who will pay the price?

Gyllenhaal is the focal point of the film and he takes it as far as I think it is possible to. He lost 20-30 pounds for the role (depending on which source you believe) and his gaunt, hollow eyed look and dead-eyed stare is unsettling. Louis can be charming with a quick smile and communicating in aphorisms that might have come off of those encouraging business posters – “Success comes to those who work their ass off,” “In order to win the lottery you have to afford to buy the ticket” and so on in that vein. But those aphorisms betray that there is nothing of substance within him. He’s a hard worker sure, but he’s completely amoral and the ends definitely justify the means and heaven help you if you get in his way. In short, he’s a sociopath. This is definitely one of Gyllenhaal’s best performances to date and there is plenty of Oscar buzz surrounding him right now.

Juxtaposed with the reptilian Louis is Rene Russo’s Nina. She’s smart, hard-nosed and has been around the block in the L.A. news wars. She’s been ground down and made cynical and even though she has a soft spot for Louis, whom she sees talent in, she also soon comes to realize that he’s a monster of her own making, who isn’t above using any means necessary to get what he wants. Russo, who was one of Hollywood’s busiest actresses back in the day, hasn’t had a role this juicy in years, even though she got to kick ass in Thor: The Dark World last year.

Using cinematographer Robert Elswit, first-time director Gilroy paints a lurid Los Angeles by night that is seductive, dangerous and seedy all at once. The urban sprawl is a city of lights by night that while not as charming as Paris has a beauty all its own. Elswit clearly has an affection for the city because it looks so amazing in his eye. I lived there for more than a decade and always had a soft spot for L.A. by night.

Other than Rick, Louis’ long-suffering assistant slash partner slash navigator, there aren’t very many nice people in this movie. As detailed before, Louis is not a nice person at all and he gets less nice as the movie goes on. It is a tribute to Gyllenhaal that we still root for him anyway. Days after seeing the movie, I felt a genuine moment of revulsion when I realized that I had been rooting for the character to get out of the house where a multiple murder had taken place before the cops got there; how sick is that, I wondered to myself. If it had been just a guy and not Jake Gyllenhaal, I would have been hoping the bastard got arrested.

That’s not the way the world works here, and such cynicism might not fly right with everybody. There is a dark world view here, where the masses are ravening for blood and don’t care how they get it, whereas parasitical videographers flit from tragedy to tragedy trying to get enough footage to sate the bloodlust of the masses. Nobody seems to care much about the truth or informing people about what they need to know. It is at the very least a sad commentary on how far our respect for news gatherers has fallen.

REASONS TO GO: One of Gyllenhaal’s most intense performances ever. Gritty and gut-churning.
REASONS TO STAY: Exaggerates the “if it bleeds it leads” concept.
FAMILY VALUES: Expect plenty of violence, some bloody images and foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gyllenhaal blinks only three times during the entire film. He also memorized the script as if it were a stage play.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: L.A. Confidential
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Stake Land

We Need to Talk About Kevin


We Need to Talk About Kevin

Sometimes the glass is neither half-full nor half-empty; it's just plain empty.

(2011) Psychological Thriller (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell, Rock Duer, Ashley Gerasimovich, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Alex Manette, Kenneth Franklin, Erin Darke, Ursula Parker. Directed by Lynne Ramsay

 

Being a parent is a terrible job. You try to guide your child into making good decisions but yet they insist on doing things that are hurtful to themselves and others. Your advice is sneered at and your opinions are unwanted. It’s a lot like living with a demonic entity. You only can hope and pray that they’ll grow into responsibility and maturity which they generally do with no help from you. However, there are cases that are special – and not in a good way.

Eva Khatchadourian (Swinton) lives in a kind of half-light between twilight and full-blown night. She self-medicates with alcohol and pills; her face is a mask of numbed misery, the face of someone who knows life is horrible and full of pain and meant to be endured, not experienced.

She wasn’t always like that. She used to be carefree and full of life. She had the love of Franklin (Reilly), a decent man and a kindred spirit. She traveled the world. Then she got pregnant.

From the beginning, Kevin (Duer) was a handful, screaming constantly to the point where while on walks with her baby in his carriage she would pause by the jackhammers of construction workers to drown his squalling out. Then, her husband would arrive home and the screaming would end. “See?” Franklin would exclaim, “You only need to rock him a little bit,” while the exhausted new mother looks on in disbelief.

As Kevin grows into a young child (Newell), his development is out of whack – or so it seems. He doesn’t speak – not because he can’t but because he refuses to and he never utters the word “mama.” He chooses not to engage with his mother. He wears diapers until he’s in grade school – not because he doesn’t know how to go to the potty but because he can torture his mother by pooping in his pants at inopportune moments. He glares at his mother because of some unspeakable crime only he knows about and sets upon punishing his mother for the act of giving birth to him – torturing her and beating her down with misbehavior, but absolutely delightful with everyone else.

As Kevin grows older, into his teens (Miller) his petty acts of vandalism escalate, killing the beloved pet of his little sister (Gerasimovich) and “accidentally” causing her to lose an eye when she knocks some household cleaners into it. However, these are merely the opening acts for a spectacular finale that is still to come.

Ramsay tells this story, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, non-sequentially, allowing the story to drift from present to past over 18 years. Some have found it confusing but I actually think it a brilliant move. Past and present exist as one in Eva’s benumbed brain, as she tortures herself with what every parent does – what did I do wrong? How could I have done better?

It becomes apparent early on that Kevin has committed some horrible act that has turned the community against Eva, causing them to splatter her home and car with red paint, to slap her outside her place of work and to break all of her eggs in their carton in the grocery store. She puts up with all of this with the misery of a self-flagellator.

Part of why this works so well is the performance of Tilda Swinton. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her work here and to my mind should have gotten an Oscar nod as well. Eva represses her feelings big time but we see them in her eyes; she’s haunted by the specters of what could have been and what has been. She can’t escape her past and she doesn’t think she deserves to. She’s racked with guilt and is in every sense of the word a broken woman, but it wasn’t an abusive spouse or boyfriend who did it – it was her son.

Both Miller and Newell are absolutely creepy as Kevin at various stages of life. This must have been completely alien to their way of thinking – without any regard for human feeling, delighting in the agony of others. How, at such young ages, do they gather the life experience needed to play someone like Kevin so well? Yet they both do. Kevin at all stages of his life is entirely believable as a sociopath and if he hadn’t have been, Swinton’s performance would have been entirely wasted.

As a parent I left the movie thinking to myself “what would I have done?” Probably very much the same as Eva I suppose. Franklin was completely oblivious to Kevin’s growing evil, mainly by design. Kevin’s final act of horror is to create a torture so ingenious and elegant in its complete evil for his mother, tying her to an area where she will be the object of scorn and hatred as well as the memories of those gone before her.

And that’s the haunting element of the film. How could someone do something like that? What drives them? How is it that you could torture someone you love knowingly? These are questions that are generated by this movie and perhaps are impossible to answer. Did Kevin become evil because of the way his mother brought him up (which the movie shows wasn’t always the most loving in the world) or was he born that way, wired for it? I don’t have any answers for that and I suspect we probably never will.

REASONS TO GO: Swinton is spectacular here. Leaves you with many questions after the film is over. Extremely melancholic.

REASONS TO STAY: Some might find it morbid and too intense.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some very disturbing scenes of sociopathic behavior and some violence, as well as a smattering of sexuality and some fairly raw language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was in development for six years, delayed mainly with BBC Film’s concern over the budget.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100. The reviews are resoundingly good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beautiful Boy

RADIOHEAD LOVERS: The music for the film was composed by lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Animal Kingdom


 

Animal Kingdom

Grandma's forgotten to take her meds again.

(2010) Crime Drama (Sony Classics) Guy Pearce, Joel Edgerton, Jacki Weaver, James Frecheville, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton, Mirrah Foulkes, Ben Mendelsohn, Laura Wheelwright, Clayton Jacobson, Anthony Hayes, Dan Wyllie, Jacqueline Brennan, Anna Lise Phillips. Directed by David Michod

 

You can choose your friends but not your family. Usually that’s not a bad thing but for certain families, it is a nightmare indeed. Growing up in a family of sociopaths is bound to affect you, even if you’ve been shielded from the worst of them.

Joshua “J” Cody’s (Frecheville) mom is a heroin addict. Make that was – she checks out of this world while watching TV. J calls the authorities and while paramedics work on her, watches “Deal or No Deal” impassively. The boy has issues.

He is sent to live with his grandmother which might seem to be a good idea but really is throwing J from the frying pan into the fire. Janine (but everyone calls her Smurf) Cody (Weaver) might seem motherly and affectionate on the outside (she is always asking her sons for a kiss, kisses which go on just long enough to be uncomfortable) but her boys – Darren (Ford), Craig (Stapleton) and Andrew (Mendelsohn) – the latter known to one and all as Pope – are, respectively, a dim-witted thug, a coke-addicted unpredictably violent thug and a remorseless psychopath. How’d you like to attend that family reunion?

J gets sucked into the family business of armed robberies, drug dealing and other petty crimes and he gets to know Pope’s right hand man Baz Brown (Edgerton) who yearns to leave the life. However when a transgression against the family leads to tragedy, Pope is forced into hiding and Craig and Smurf assume control of the family business. Meanwhile, Police Sgt. Nathan Leckie (Pearce) is hot on the trail of the family and is concerned for J’s well-being. He also sees J as a potential informant, the key to ending the Cody family’s reign of terror once and for all.

It’s hard to believe that this is Michod’s first feature as a director. It’s so self-assured and well-executed that you’d think someone like Coppola or Scorsese had something to do with it. It doesn’t hurt that he has a bangin’ script to work with, as well as a group of actors who are quite talented although other than Pearce and Edgerton not terribly well-known in the States.

Weaver was justly nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar at the 2011 Academy Awards and while she didn’t win, she gives a performance here that she will undoubtedly be remembered for the remainder of her career. She is at turns sweet and cuddly, cold and manipulative and creepy and psychotic. She’s the type of person who in one moment can be kissing her grandson and the next ordering his execution. It’s a bravura performance and worth renting/streaming the movie for all by itself.

Mendelsohn is nearly as impressive. He is absolutely without remorse or any real human feeling other than rage. He takes because he can; he wounds because he can and he kills because he can. He understands that he is the de facto godfather of Melbourne’s most notorious crime family and will do whatever it takes to keep it that way. He is not motivated so much by love of family as he is love of being feared.

Frecheville has perhaps the most difficult and most thankful role of all. If this were Goodfellas he’d be Henry Hill; he’s the audience surrogate but at the same time, he is a wounded puppy. He’s got definite issues but at the same time he’s a typical teenager, prone to acting rashly and not always logically. It is tough for a character like this to remain sympathetic but Frecheville manages to make J remain so throughout the film, even when he’s doing boneheaded things.

There are times when it gets a bit too realistic for my tastes; I was genuinely creeped out by some of the actions of the Cody family from grandma on down, and there were times I was taken out of the experience because of it. Still, for the most part this is one of those movies you can’t turn away from once you sit down to watch and it will stay with you for a long while after you get up to go.

WHY RENT THIS: Stark, brutal and authentic. Career-defining performances from Weaver, Mendelsohn and Frecheville. Taut and keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Goes overboard on the creepy at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, as well as some drug use (as well as drug culture depictions) and a buttload of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie owns the record for most Australian Film Institute nominations for a single film with 18.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a Q&A with director Michod and actress Weaver from the Los Angeles Film Festival.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.8M on an unreported production budget; it seems likely that the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Midnight Meat Train