Today we revisit the past with another lost review found with an assist from the internet archive. I’ve modified the old template so it fits in [better] with the current format. A complete revision would have required rereading the script… I did not believe it was worth that much effort.
[I even debated with myself about republishing the review. In the end, I decided there was enough merit to warrant it’s imprisonment on the site. If for no other reason than it clearly shows how much my critical skills have sharpened.]
This script has me, uncharacteristically, searching for words. Not in a good way either—not at all like the way I was left momentarily speechless by Eternal Sunshine. I feel like Animal Kingdom isn’t a bad script at the same time it isn’t much good either. It reads like a pro script, but I can’t think of any reason someone would want to produce it other than doing so would be inexpensive. Perhaps this is another plank in the floor of the argument for writing [at least] mostly solid, cheap, scripts.
Revealingly, I don’t know what my take, or “reviewing angle” is with this script. To put it another way, if I were writing in Carson’s style, my “what I learned” section would be blank. I can see this fact is revealing by itself [it means something for sure] I just have no idea what the image behind the curtain Is. It’s as though I’ve been hit with a sudden and complete case of Discernment Myopia.
There are a few flashes of actual brilliance, each offset by the laziest, most cliched, choices a screenwriter could make. To make these clichéd choices even worse, there is no acknowledgement that modern forensic science makes it really hard to get away with the events which make up the worst offenders from this category–like cutting up a dead body in your bathtub with a chainsaw.
In general, DO NOT use the chainsaw trope. But if you do, don’t sit back as a writer and try and pretend that, in our current civilization, you can use the chainsaw trope and not leave a conviction’s worth of evidence behind.
So, I didn’t like Animal Kingdom. We’ll use the 5 questions to determine whether this is more because it isn’t in my wheelhouse, or because it’s poorly written and executed.
1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (Each part worth 10 points)
Part A) I thought the handling of the exposition was one of the few successes of Animal Kingdom. We’re introduced to a large cast of characters and relationships (almost too large). We need to know who these people are and why they are all part of a giant Catch 22 for the protagonist, J. The author fills in these details with their actions—we do not just get stories about what they’ve done to illustrate what they are. A great example from pages 11-12:
They wind down side streets. After two corners, the hood car
hits its brakes. They’ve had enough. Craig slows to a stop five car lengths behind. He looks to J, who is staring at the gun in his hands – he’s never held one before in his life.
The men get out of the car. The driver hood approaches angry.
Go get him.
And do what?
Let him know who’s king.
19 EXT. STREET – DAY 19
J climbs out of the car. One hood is almost on them. J raises
the gun tentatively, trying to maintain composure. The driver
immediately backs down, apologising, backing away. J says
nothing, watches him retreat, feels the power.
The men get back in their car and drive away hastily. J stands
watching them leave.
20 INT. CRAIG’S STATION WAGON – DAY 20
J gets back in, numb, buzzing. Craig smiles.
How’d that feel? You get a stiffy?
J stares at the gun in his lap, then hands it back to Craig.
Butt first, mate.
We now know, in less than a page, exactly what kind of man Craig is, and exactly what he wants his nephew to become. All of the relationships between J and the criminal members of his family are introduced like this. It was the strongest part of the script:
10 out of 10 points.
Part B) There is a lot of subtext. As we would expect, it relates to the script’s theme—What is the definition of a loving family? My favorite example comes from pages 32-34:
J sits on his bed alone, trying unsuccessfully to tie a necktie.
Smurf enters in a black dress and heels. She is looking in a
small compact, applying lipstick.
You didn’t cry at the funeral, did you
J continues tying his tie, like he’s not going to respond.
I tried, but nothing came out.
Is that wrong?
Nothing’s wrong, honey. Things just
are what they are and what’s right and
wrong is how you look at it. You know?
You need to find your positive spin.
There’s always one around somewhere.
Is Nicky coming today?
Her parents won’t let her.
Smurf puckers her lips. J’s struggling with his tie.
What are you doing?
Smurf closes her compact and looks at J on the bed.
Let’s get a look at you. Stand up.
J stands. Smurf undoes his necktie and tries to re-tie it.
She’s unsuccessful, so she takes it off him and puts it on
herself to tie it.
You know why your mum and I hadn’t
spoken in so long?
We had a fight about – you know the
card game 500? She reckoned you can
play the joker whenever you want in a
no-trumps hand. She was drunk. I was
drunk too, but I was right. But so
look what happens. Years go by and
then she’s gone and I lose my only
daughter because you can’t play the
joker whenever you want in a no-trumps
hand. And I don’t get to see you for
years. And that made me sad. But I’m
getting to see you now. All the time.
Having successfully knotted the tie, Smurf takes it off herself and puts it around J’s neck. She pulls the tie tight and steps back to inspect him.
Sweet. How do I look?
You look good.
Smurf kisses J’s lips.
This little scene is almost staggeringly brilliant—even more so because its brilliance is so understated. Smurf is J’s grandma, but she isn’t like your grandma or mine. Everything she says is littered with two subtextual ideas.
First, you earn your participation in her family, it is not a right.
Second, she is the most important thing in the world.
Smurf’s story to J about his mother is a warning. Agree with me or else. When she finishes tying the tie, she asks J how she looks. After which, she kisses J on the lips.
Summed, Smurf’s message is I’ll give you my love and attention only if you agree with me and you set me on a pedestal. This is brilliant because it so obviously subverts the archetypal Grandmother. More points in my book because it does all this with the, simultaneously, choking AND caring symbolism of helping to tie a necktie.
10 out of 10 points.
Part C) The character individuation was also very good. Each of J’s uncles is a unique instance of gangster:
Craig is the guy who gets high on his own supply.
Baz is the guy who wants to take the money they’ve earned and invest it in the legalized larceny of the stock market.
Darren is the reluctant gangster in over his head.
Pope is the psychopath.
Definitely has a been there done that feel, but it was well-realized in spite of not being very original.
8 out of 10 points.
2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)
Okay, I haven’t been too hard on this script so far but, for this question, I’m going to really bring down the hammer. I can’t remember ever having a reaction to a produced script more virulent than my reaction to the opening ten pages of this one. In short, I would not have continued to read if not for the fact that this was promised as a review.
The first page is devoted to setting up a character who is 20 years old and can’t shave himself without his mom’s help. At the time, I had no idea what the point of this was at all.
Page 2 informs us that he’s a cop. Him and his partner cruise around town and get interrupted by a radio distress dispatch.
There is nothing in these two pages that would have kept me reading if it weren’t for the promise owed to the site.
Fortunately, the script does get SLIGHTLY better in the next 8… I think.
The bottom of page 3 pays off the opening in that our 20 year old who can’t shave himself properly without his mother’s help, gets his head blown off in a routine traffic stop. So, now I get it, the opening scene was meant to make us instantly sympathize with him so that we could feel—I don’t know why we should, it’s just a page —something when he dies.
To me this felt really forced. I love symbolism and the manipulation by authors as much as the next reviewer, but I don’t want to be hit over the head with these things. Make me work for it a little bit.
On the bottom of 3 to the middle of 4, we leave the execution of the officers and get to meet J. Oh, but we meet him in his living room watching TV beside his mother who just died from overdosing on heroin.
Yeah, this was the point where I was first worried about this script pick. Would it all be as bad as this?
It did get better from there. Marginally.
12 out of 20 points.
3. Does the structure of the story have a suitable number of reveals? (30 points)
Structurally, the thing I found most interesting about this script is that the first scene is an unacknowledged flash forward. The execution of the officers comes at about the midpoint of the actual chronology of the story.
The author does not set up his flash forward in the traditional ways, and I thought this was a great choice. It made for a nice ah-ha moment when the out of place timeline inserted into the regular timeline. I liked this quite a bit, and would consider trying this in my own writing if I write something that requires a flash forward.
Thematically, though, I thought the script was as much of a mess as its first 4 pages. The author has clearly chosen to say something about what a loving family is by showing us its least likely suspect—a crime family.
Opposed to this, we also have an example of family in the mother and stepfather who raise J’s girlfriend, Nicky. These are good people who obviously love their daughter AND J too. So, it’s somewhat puzzling that Nicky ends up dead at the hands of J’s psychotic uncle Pope.
Perhaps, there is something to hang Theme’s hat on in the resolution of the story between J and the members of his actual family… J summarily kills Pope, and then hugs a distraught Smurf. These actions are followed up immediately by FADE OUT.
Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s the script, but I just didn’t get these plot choices at all.
(The forensic fails were a bit annoying too. There’s no way the uncles get acquitted as the script requires.)
15 out of 30 points.
4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)
Part A) Here are our opening images:
TITLE CARD ON BLACK: ‘This is fiction.’
1 INT. SUBURBAN BATHROOM – DAY 1
20 year-old DANIEL HORDERN stands at the sink of a neat
bathroom, his face covered in shaving foam.
He dips his blade in the basin and drags it across his cheek. He winces in pain.
The only thing I find promising in this description is the TITLE CARD. Basically, I always assume what I’m reading is fiction unless I get a title card that tells me otherwise. Starting with a title card that confirms what I believe is… interesting. It promises a meta-fictional component, maybe?
Unfortunately, it ended up promising nothing. If the author meant it as a “this is fiction but it is what really happens” kind of thing, he failed the second he had one of the main characters cut a guy up in a bathtub with a chainsaw.
Other than that TITLE CARD, the rest is workman-like. It gets the job done, but it never rises to the level of being a reason in itself to keep reading.
The rest of the script continue in blandness what the opening images begin.
2 out of 5 points.
Part B) Yes, I thought this was a script that knew its genre niche and tailored itself very well to being successful in that genre. The production budget isn’t available, but I would be shocked to hear that this film didn’t earn a healthy return on investment. So, in that sense [if no other] the story was unique.
Additionally, as we saw in question 3, the dialogue is well-written. I’d be interested in looking at other projects from this author just based on the dialogue skill.
On the other hand, the story had some pretty massive problems, and seemed to care very little [if at all] for the American Box Office. There is nothing wrong with this approach, it’s just not one I’m familiar with.
3 out of 5 points.
5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script? (10 points)
Now that I’ve worked through the review, I guess I can end with at least one positive which might count as something I learned from this script that I did not like at all.
Great dialogue always comes through. The dialogue and pricetag have to be the reasons this got made. There just isn’t anything else to recommend it, in my opinion.
0 out of 10 points.
Total Score: 68