Writer-director David Michôd's first
theatrical feature is a startlingly harsh and morally uncompromising
portrait of an unrelievedly creepy family of Australian criminals.
Shot in washed-out widescreen, these delusional, paranoid characters
guide us through the slow but persistent breakdown of their small, sad
criminal empire. Michôd's great strength is his emotional detachment
as a storyteller, which affords a strong sense of realism and obviates
the operatics of Scarface or an ending that offers redemption to one
or more anti-heroes. Instead, convincing detail is utilized to
illustrate not only how a criminal gang may be brought to its knees
- but how it may also, through its most insidious tendencies, be made
Animal Kingdom opens with a
stone-faced teenager idly watching television while not more than three
feet away, paramedics attempt to save his dying mother from a heroin
overdose. The teenager is the shell-shocked Josh "J" Cody
(James Frecheville), and he is shortly taken under the wing of his grandmother
Janine (Jacki Weaver), an evilly sweet matriarch who keeps a close watch
over her brood of three crooked sons: Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is
manic and drug-addled; the youngest, Darren (Luke Ford), is barely his
own man and has trouble navigating the muddy waters of the criminal
enterprise; and the oldest, Andrew, AKA "Pope" (Ben Mendelsohn),
is ambitious and dangerously unbalanced. Their partner and the
only mature adult among them, Barry "Baz" Brown (Joel Edgerton),
is trying to sort out an exit from The Life; he even advises Pope to
invest in the stock market. Baz is also the only person providing
any kind of real guidance to J. When Baz is murdered, it is the
beginning of the end for the Codys. One killing begets another,
and the police start to close in, led by Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce).
J is forced to determine where his loyalties - and his safety -
lie, and this quandary drives the clammy tension of the film's second
Michôd's resolute fidelity to his
characters makes Animal Kingdom a crime picture with rare commitment
to both organic storytelling and journalistic realism. As the
title suggests, the Codys are like wild beasts trapped in a corner,
driven to desperate and horrible acts. As the brothers edge closer
to self-destruction, Janine maintains a chilling cool throughout, the
confident leader of her miscreant litter. Her awful stoicism leaves
no doubt that she would eat her young in order to survive. In
the role, Weaver exudes a grotesque "love" for her sons that is
little more than an instinct for self-preservation; her talent for control
is primarily expressed through uncomfortably affectionate kisses.
Special mention must be made of the
performance by James Frecheville, who, as J, has by far the most screen
time of any cast member. Only 17 at the time of the film's production,
this is Frecheville's first role and it's nothing short of remarkable.
We are constantly reminded of J's youth and inexperience, and during
a number of sequences, Frecheville is called upon to express a violent,
elemental fear. It's a compelling, restrained performance that
does double-duty as the audience's pivotal entry point into the story.
As Pope, the senior brother and de
facto leader of the family after Baz's murder, Mendelsohn makes flesh
crawl like no other screen creep. His horribleness emerges not
so much from overt acts of terror, but instead oozes from glances, a
few oddly-chosen words here and there, and the awful sense of what he
is capable of. Only once in the film does he do something outright
nasty, and it is the quiet fulfillment of the character's strangely
gentle capacity for the unspeakable.
This brings me to a point about Michôd's
technique here, which generally eschews blunt or graphic violence (with
a couple of key exceptions) in favor of character-driven tension that
is carefully cranked up as the stakes of the Codys' situation change.
When J begins talking to Detective Leckie, we know that he is putting
himself in enormous danger - but it's difficult to tell just how
much J knows about the Codys' criminal activity, and whether he will
actually tell everything he knows. J's growth as a character
is uncertain - we suspect he may be looking for a way out. But
the outcome of his "arc" is more surprising, more realistic, and
more chilling than what we've come to expect from the crime genre.
Animal Kingdom is a remarkable debut for both Michôd and Frecheville,
and it brings a new level of mature, psychological investigation to
the crime picture.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.