Any movie about a crime family is destined to echo previous entries in the genre, from The Godfather to The Sopranos. But Animal Kingdom, the auspicious debut of Australian writer-director David Michôd, carves out a spot for itself that commands respect. Right from the opening scene, in which 17-year-old Josh Cody (James Frecheville) calls the police to inform them that his mother has overdosed on heroin while watching TV, the film establishes a menacing, unsparing mood that never wavers.
While the paramedics try to revive his mom, Josh – or J, as everyone calls him – can’t tear himself away from a TV game show, the first indication of the emotional and psychological neglect he’s suffered. That neglect quickly becomes something much worse after J moves in with his perky Grandma Smurf (Jacki Weaver) and uncles, the coke head Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and the dim-witted Darren (Luke Ford).
A third uncle, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), is currently in hiding, trying to evade a unit of vigilante Melbourne police officers committed to killing him on sight. One of the elements that supplies Animal Kingdom with its fresh edge (and anchors it as a Western) is that the cops are just as corrupt as the bad guys, happy to shoot first, plant a gun and then fill out the necessary paperwork.
Against this sort of lawless authority, the Codys have to be extra careful – and extra vicious – in order to continue their lifestyle of bank robberies and petty crimes. Much of Animal Kingdom unfolds through J’s unblinking, incomprehending eyes: Kept away from his relatives by his mother for his protection, the young man must now assimilate into a family he doesn’t know and learn to behave as they do (example: when someone at a traffic light gives you the skunk eye, pull out a gun and threaten to kill him).
The plot of Animal Kingdom kicks in after the quietly observant, extremely paranoid Pope resurfaces and orchestrates bloody revenge after an attack on the family. Played by Mendelsohn with a brooding, dangerous menace, Pope is a frightening creature, capable of anything, an insane man who doesn’t realize he’s crazy. But the real puppet master of the gang is the sweet and cheery grandmother, who tends to kiss her grandsons just a tad too long and whose bright blue eyes can go from welcoming to threatening in a blink.
Trying to be a normal adolescent, J goes out with his girlfriend (Laura Wheelwright) and does his best to steer clear of his family’s schemes. But after a detective (Guy Pearce) intent on bringing Pope down senses the boy’s innocence and courts him to rat on his relatives, the teen becomes stranded in a dangerous tug of war between right and wrong. Whichever side he chooses, he’ll still end up losing.
Animal Kingdom moves with a brisk efficiency – Michôd trusts the viewer and doesn’t waste time with unnecessary back story – and the plot twists and turns at brutal speed. This is the sort of picture in which anyone – guilty or innocent – can get blown away at any moment, and as the stakes get higher and J’s dilemma worsens, it becomes a pressure cooker of duress. Animal Kingdom is practically devoid of humor – even Michôd’s ironic use of Air Supply’s All Out of Love makes you gulp instead of laugh – and the movie closes with a proverbial but shocking bang. “Crooks always come undone, always, one way or another,” someone says, and the movie makes watching these particular crooks unravel a riveting, brutally tense experience.
Cast: James Frecheville, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver, Sullivan Stapleton, Laura Wheelwright.
Writer-director: David Michôd.
Producer: Liz Watts.
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Running time: 112 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, drug use, sexual situations, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Shadowood.