David Michôd’s ANIMAL KINGDOM features one of the quietest protagonist you’ll ever meet.  He’s ‘J’ (James Frecheville), a good looking kid with a heavy brow and downcast eyes, and in the first moments of the film – one of the strongest opening scenes I’ve seen in a while – he’s on the couch watching the telly (this is an Australian film) with his mum, who is asleep. Only she’s not asleep … (SPOILER ALERT – “inciting incident” about to be revealed right here and now) … she’s “gone and OD’d.” As the paramedics take her away, J, now fully alone, calls his estranged (no joke) Grandma Smurf (Jacki Weaver), and within minutes she’s on her way to pick him up . (“Do you remember where we live, Grandma?” “Course I do darling!”) She proceeds to pull him firmly into her family of criminal sons; into the ANIMAL KINGDOM where the weakest are, well, devoured. In this hyper aggressive world, where men lunge at one another like lions, shoot cops, do drugs and kiss their mother on the mouth, how did Michôd manage to pull off the writing feat of a passive protagonist? For much of the movie, J sits and stares, goes to his room and escapes to his girlfriend’s house. Passive.

Or is he? My students and I are considering this question right now. Are passive protagonists really active, just active in their … avoidance? The best passive protagonists are stealthily pushing the plot forward, sly and low to the ground. Classic case: Sissy Spacek’s Holly in Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS. She practically puppy-follows boyfriend Kit (Martin Sheen) the entire film, who is making the brash decisions, but overall, Holly impacts the plot far more. In ANIMAL KINGDOM, J’s seemingly passive nature makes his narrative arc and his final actions all the more gripping. You can probably guess what happens, but the way in which it unfolds? I doubt you’ll be close. It’s surprising.

Michôd also begins his film with an extremely long voice over, a formal element which simply never returns. Does this work? Well, speaking of voice over, Malick’s BADLANDS introduces Sissy Spacek’s Holly with the very same element, and in the same tense, looking back on the story from greater wisdom. (This must have been an influence.) But ANIMAL KINGDOM’s content feels far more expository than in BADLANDS, and its disappearance is as a woven element is troubling. Not that I wanted it back. It’s an interesting film – but at over 2 hours, a book-ended, additional voice over may have sent me roaring out, like a lion.


View the trailer below (and for BADLANDS as well). ANIMAL KINGDOM premiered at Sundance 2010 and will be released on DVD this summer. It is playing selectively around the country.