Australia | 2010 | Writer/Dir: David Michod
When an awkward teenager is adopted into a family of criminals in the twilight of their careers, he must choose to be loyal to his clan or risk his life to bring them down.
A great screenplay shows an understanding for the principles of storytelling; an ingenious screenplay extends that understanding and intelligently subverts the principles to surprise the audience. Animal Kingdom is one of the finest films Australia has produced in a long time and it’s greatness lies in the ingenuity of the screenplay that David Michod developed over the course of 9 years.
Cited by many as the film’s key accomplishments, the palpable tension and the unpredictable plotting are born out of an innovative dramatic structure. Rather than the classic hero’s journey model that sees an active protagonist pitted against an active antagonist, Michod’s hero and villain are both dormant until the final act; and even then the conflict between them is still indirect. Josh and Smurf each have an active proxy - Detective Leckie and the remorseless Pope respectively - who create conflict and drive the story forward until it becomes clear that the proxies would fail and ruin the masterplan unless the dormant characters reveal their true colours. This structure allows the tension of the external conflict to be amplified by the indirect conflict between hero and villain as well as their internal moral conflict. When Smurf and Josh finally take on active roles, the stakes are raised, tension boils over and the events that transpire are shockingly satisfying for the audience.
In the final scene, after Josh kills Pope, it seems confrontation between Josh and Smurf is inevitable. However, the screenplay surprises us one last time: the hero embraces the villain. This is the perfect structural and thematic closure for the film: the hero and the villain have retreated back to their dormancy, peace has been restored but we now know that peace in this family is a dangerous veneer.
Trailer after the break.