Hardhearted, ominous, violent, and nail-biting, Animal Kingdom is a distinctive distillation of a well-worn genre; a brooding, unrelenting character study about uncaged beasts; and a grim rites-of-passage Shakespearean drama with an atmosphere of lethal portent and malignancy. Skilfully lit and edited with low-key performances, it’s a contemplative policer from down under with a high startlement quotient, marrying heightened emotionality with cool contemporary style.
When his mother dies from a heroin overdose, 17-year-old Joshua “J” Cody accepts an invitation to move in with his estranged grandmother, Janine “Smurf” Cody. Smurf is the affectionate matriarch of a dysfunctional Melbourne crime family that includes Andrew “Pope” Cody, the psychopathic oldest son; Baz, Pope’s best friend who specializes in armed robbery; Craig, the drug dealer and turbulent middle brother; and Darren, the youngest. When Detective Nathan Leckie brings J, Pope, and Darren in for questioning following a double homicide, the group unravels into murder and mayhem.
Faultlessly acted by top Australian talent, including Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, and Guy Pearce (The Hurt Locker, LA Confidential), the impeccably-titled Animal Kingdom tells a ferocious, uncompromising story that hits like two shots of gin before breakfast. Rangy and frequently shocking, it twists and turns at brutal speed and moves with a brisk efficiency. Jacki Weaver, a veteran screen, television, and stage actress, gives the choicest performance as the sing-song leader of the Cody clan, a truly memorable villainess, a pint-sized and perfectly chilling sociopath.
First-time writer-director David Michôd worked for eight years on the screenplay, deepening his tale of conscienceless crooks until the gangster conventions feel as if they’re in the service of a modern-day Greek tragedy. In his densely textured moral universe, Michôd takes familiar material and approaches it with less emphasis on the sensational and more emphasis on the accepted dread. Rarely is a debut feature handled with such assurance. Michôd isn’t as flashy as Scorsese, but he’s effectual at pumping the plot full of tension through layers of increasingly dangerous and volatile characters until it’s almost unbearable. One false move by anyone can result in death.
Marking Michôd as a talent to watch and reinvigorating my faith that Australian cinema is capable of truly profound complexity, Animal Kingdom’s focus on the personalities of its criminals and its portrayal of the raw fear lurking below the brothers’ braggadocio suggests an Australian answer to Goodfellas, minus the wise-guy humour. It’s rich in psychology and attune to details, establishing a menacing mood that never wavers.
Animal Kingdom explores the down and dirty side of human nature, the side fraught with greed, suspicion, and betrayal. Its greatness lies in its unwavering fidelity to the darkest versions of ourselves and the unstoppability of the wildest parts of our species. In examining the chaos and extraordinary paranoia of a wicked brood, it starkly assesses the corrosive effects of lawbreaking. As a fable of power and vengeance, it exerts an enticing, distressing pull equivalent to that of Mama Smurf.
Most crime stories are content to exist, wallowing in base savagery. Animal Kingdom daringly takes the genre apart, stripping from it the cinematic romance that often idealizes the corrupt, finding a reason for the madness that propels it. The film has very little faith in authority, not even in Pearce’s righteous detective, and its slow-building fatalism finds depressing extension via an out-of-left-field collaborator. The only law in the Kingdom is Darwin’s, the “survival of the shrewdest.” It suggests what Aeschylus might have had in mind, if the House of Orestes had been fond of seafood barbeques.
Michôd does falter, serving up Trainspotting-like tricks that are beguiling, but seldom apropos, and an episode of arbitrary cruelty that is excessively creepy. But the Cody’s are ruthless predators, and Michôd is as callously punctilious in stalking his prey. Pungent and pulverizing, Animal Kingdom catches its audience in a vice and squeezes the windpipe until they’re gasping for air. It may be the closest thing we get to an Australian Godfather. Don’t be fooled: In this unpeaceable kingdom, the den mama is ready to eat her young. And like a coiled rattlesnake, the young bite back.