06 September 2010

Jacki Weaver, Queen of the "Animal Kingdom"

I've got it pretty good here in Atlanta. My home is both a city that I love and the cultural capital of the South. We don't usually get first week openings for art films... those are pretty much exclusively for New York and Los Angeles. It is not even that common that we get second week openings either... go to Chicago, San Francisco or Boston for those. But Atlanta still gets the art films. I am thankful for that. I have no problem waiting three weeks to see something that if I lived elsewhere, I might never get a chance to see in the cinema.

I saw the trailer for Animal Kingdom a couple of months ago at home, one day when I was in the mood to just watch some movie trailers. I headed over to Apple's trailer collection and watched several trailers for films which either had titles or posters that struck my fancy. Animal Kingdom had both. And the trailer was even better.

Immediately, Jacki Weaver stands out in the trailer. First off, she the only female shown to have any lines (there are a couple more in the film, but the roles aren't nearly as large). Secondly, she looks supremely menacing.

A few weeks into the film's US release, it hit Atlanta. I went to see it the day it came out here and it met every one of my high expectations head-on. Animal Kingdom is akin to Israel's Ajami, minus the broken narrative structure and with a singular focus on one family. Funny that I liken it to Ajami, seeing as these two films are both among my top three for the year so far.

I imagine the Australian Film Institute Awards will have a field day with Animal Kingdom. The film is marvelously paced. Every bit its two hours moves with swift but meaningful pace, thanks to a strong screenplay and an exceptional ensemble. Newcomer James Frenchville carries the film from the first frame. A stone-faced exterior eventually gives way to show his vulnerability and, ultimately, his shrewdness. Frecheville is very solid in the film, but veteran Aussie actors Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, Sullivan Stapleton and Guy Pearce walk away with more of the audience's attention.

Let's talk about Jacki Weaver. Weaver plays the mother of four sons who are involved in a variety of crimes... bank robbery, drugs, murder. When Frenchville's character, J, calls her after his mother dies of a heroin overdose, she resumes her grandmotherly duties after having been absent from his life for many years. While her boys take care of her, you never feel as though she is helpless. In return, she dotes on them with long kisses on the mouth. I know... right? These kisses might seem incestuous, but aren't. They are simply how she casts her spell.
"All of her four children had different fathers. They were violent criminals. She has consorted with criminals all of her life and has made a living out of the proceeds of criminal behavior — that is why she condones and encourages the boys. I think she's a woman without a conscience, a sociopath." - Jacki Weaver, Los Angeles Times interview
Maintaining a confident presence amidst all of the havoc that arises; when we finally see her break down... mascara running from those unflinching and devilish eyes... we are perhaps even less sympathetic than we were before. And after we see her choose between one of her sons and her grandson, we know that she is the one who has been in charge all along.

Even with her standing out in the trailer, I didn't expect her performance to be this good. In this day and age, Oscar-watching is a tremendously popular internet hobby. Buzz is generated for performances months before they are seen. Animal Kingdom won the World Cinema Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, but I had yet to hear much about it. When you come across a performance that jumps out and strangles you, and you hadn't already been told to expect it, it seems all the more powerful. She plays Janine "Smurf" Cody with an unwavering intensity... both in the character's disturbing nature and in the consistency of the performance.

I hope Sony Pictures Classics stays on top of the game and puts on a good campaign for her. While it seems that the Best Supporting Actress category is one of the easier groups in which to find inclusion when the film isn't exactly up to par, it helps that Animal Kingdom is a very good film. Other nominations would be well-deserved, but are very unlikely for an Australian film with such limited distribution.

This is director David Michôd's first feature film. He wrote Weaver's part specifically for her and thank goodness for that. Whether or not the film attains any Oscar nominations come January, Michôd can at least take comfort in his first film being a job well done.

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