"Mom kept me away from her family because she was scared." After seeing Animal Kingdom, you can't blame her. The "me" in that line is Joshua "J" Cody (James Frecheville), who looks on impassively in the film's first scene as paramedics work on his overdosed mother, a game show blasting on the TV. He calls his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver) primarily because he doesn't know what else to do. She gladly welcomes him into their large family, a collection of gruff men who specialize in masked, armed robberies. To call the domestic dynamic tricky would be something of an understatement.
David Mich˘d's Animal Kingdom is a family crime epic with dirt on the floor, a picture that reaches for no effects, just steadily building, ominously, perilously. "J" wanders into their world, keeps his head down, doesn't say much. The Cody family gang is already in a precarious state--the leader of the gang, "Pope" (Ben Mendelsohn) is in hiding, and his partner and friend "Baz" (Joel Edgerton) has grown weary of the running and gunning. Craig (Sullivan Stapelton) is carrying a speed and coke addiction that's starting to spin out of control. "J"'s youngest uncle, Darren (Luke Ford), scarcely older than him, is just trying to keep up.
They're watched over by Janine, whom everyone calls "Smurf," and she's a piece of work--she plays the role of the loving matriarch, all "honey"s and "sweetie"s and "give us a kiss"es, but she lingers, ickily, a bit too long when she kisses her boys, and the more time we spend with her, the clearer it becomes that she's the black, ruthless soul of the family, cold blood running to a warm face. Late in the film, there's a chilling scene where she explains to a police contact exactly how things are and how they're going to be, and she plays it right to the bone, without any of the obvious signals that a lesser actor might throw us.
Much more plot than that I cannot discuss; writer/director Mich˘d shakes the snow globe early on with the ruthless murder of a major character that is so unexpected, it takes the wind out of you. It's an old trick, but it still works--a signal to the audience that no one is safe, and from that point on, all bets are off. Mich˘d, who has a gift for finding striking visuals in mundane, everyday environs, slowly and patiently builds a sense of unwinding dread, which becomes so thick it threatens to suffocate you. He's keenly tuned in to the inevitability of the picture's action, and our awareness of it; once things go south for "J," he's holding shots just a beat too long, toying with the audience, with our recognition that bad things will happen, it's just a matter of time.
He also knows when to leave a scene out--the courtroom conclusions we're waiting for at the end are passed right by (they're not necessary), and we never actually see the gang in action (just creepy, effective surveillance stills in the opening credits, with the moody score adding another layer of unease). His focus, instead, is on the psychological make-up of the family, the specific ways in which they work each other over. Mendelsohn is particularly frightening as Pope--it's a portrait of dead-eyed, dull-edged, everyday evil, the kind of thing Gary Oldman (whom the actor bears a passing resemblance to) does so well. Guy Pearce, the film's only recognizable name on these shores, is quietly effective in the notably un-flashy role of a police detective who sees the new youngster as a way to penetrate the family; his cop is a grinder, a workaday guy, and Pearce admirably restrains the urge to take him over the top. Same goes for newcomer Frecheville, who is something of a blank slate, but that feels right--he's an audience surrogate (a la Henry Hill in Goodfellas) and allows us to draw our own conclusions about him and what he's seeing. In fact, his impenetrability is an unexpected boon to the picture's concluding scenes, where we're so unsure of his intentions that the entire narrative seems up in the air.
Mich˘d's soundtrack makes occasional use of cheeseball power-pop, but not just for easy, snicker-snicker irony. He slathers on effects (visual and aural) to add distortion and tension, making a song like "I'm All Out of Love" a vehicle of real tightness and power (probably for the first time). He doesn't make a habit of over-stylization, though; for the most part, Animal Kingdom is played close to the vest, and Mich˘d takes in the Codys' rituals and behavior with an anthropologist's eye. This is potent, powerful filmmaking.