No one to trust
Animal Kingdom is a film about the meltdown of a criminal family but also a hair-raising coming of age tale. This stunning feature film debut by the Australian director-writer David Michôd (Michôd is pronounced me-show, like the French name Michaud.) has been compared to Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and also to Greek tragedy, or an epic. But if you are paying close attention, and it’s hard not to, comparisons won’t occur to you, if at all, till later. What dominates is an overwhelming awareness of how afraid everybody is, how unpredictable and crazy is the world they live in and perpetuate. Michôd creates an effect that’s contemporary and immediate, without glamorous or referential filmic effects. The action is continually tense and absorbing. The strength of his film is in that. It grabs you and holds you. The down side is a certain lack of grace notes or elegance of design. But the effect is exhilarating. It’s great to be swept away like this, and the audience when I watched applauded at the end.
We begin with Joshua, known as “J” (James Frecheville), a big, towering 17-year-old whose quiet, deadpan voice limns in the family he’s just become a close part of due to the death of his heroin-addict mother. His blonde grandmother Smurf Cody (Jacki Weaver) hasn’t spoken with J’s mother for years, but she comes to rescue him and brings him to live with the rough gang of her four burly and scary criminal sons, his estranged uncles, of whom she is the den mother and matriarch — almost the lover: she kisses them on the mouth. We meet the dangerous Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), a bank robber and nut case off his meds, recently out of prison and hiding from the cops; the rough but business-savvy Baz (Joel Edgerton), who wants to go legit and become a stock broker; the brutish tattoo-covered Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), a drug dealer and heavy user; the brawny but introverted, relatively spineless Darren (Luke Ford). Smurf seems to set a warmer, more human note amid this macho brood, but turns out to be deeper than anyone into the spirit of betrayal and deception that pollutes the atmosphere. At first Pope is hiding out and isn’t seen. Then he joins the household again and becomes the principal menace.
There’s neither heroism nor goodness in this world, and hardly any sense of structure. J describes his relatives as “criminals,” with no hint of gangland alliances. Michôd has described Melbourne’s crime scene as not restricted to any ghetto or enclave, and the Codys live in an ordinary modern suburb of the city. The Cody boys are bank robbers and drug dealers but at the moment more involved in a feud with the police, whose various departments are corrupt and out of touch with each other. No one is to be trusted. Everybody lies.
The police armed-robbery squad is out of control. In a seemingly random cop assassination, they gun down Baz in broad daylight. Henceforth the family’s meltdown begins. Pope, the eldest, most unhinged brother, has no rational check on him now, and takes over. At his instigation, two cops are killed at night investigating a stolen car. This was the starting point of the script Michôd worked on for eight years, based on a true Melbourne incident that occurred in 1988.
After the double cop-killing, J is picked up and questioned by Detective Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce). The youth doesn’t reveal anything, but he does talk, spinning a simple alibi to cover his own involvement. This is a mistake, as far as Pope is concerned: J should have said nothing. From then on Pope no longer trusts the boy, and brutally takes J’s new girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright) out of the picture. J becomes the linchpin of any case against the brothers, Leckie a seeming ally, but in truth J has no allies. There is no one he can trust. In a perhaps over-explicit moment, Leckie explains to J that he is exploitable as weak, because he is young. But J’s stoical manner, hulking form, and swiftness on his feet belie that characterization. J’s continual danger is the focus of Animal Kingdom’s high anxiety level. Cops, criminals, and lawyers all try to manipulate J The Codys may not be gangland chieftains, but they do have legal and police allies who can undermine Leckie’s efforts and make a mockery of his promise of safety for J.
Animal Kingdom seethes with danger and has sporadic killings. But it’s free of cathartic American Mafia-style shootouts or any sort of heavy violence. Deaths that occur have an almost documentary verisimilitude. There is more emphasis on unpredictability than on drama, and this increases the prevailing sense of dread.
J, in his outsider’s dilemma, dominates the scene, but so does Pope’s increasingly psychopathic behavior. And when she steps in and takes a more active role in the action, Smurf also haunts us with her duplicitous smile. This is war, but whose side are we on?
Undoubtedly ambitious, possibly by intention epic, Animal Kingdom keeps its fresh feel through continuous surprises. The widescreen cinematography of Adam Arkapaw is always striking but never clichéd or scenic. Antony Partos’ music is a little too portentous at times, but certainly maintains tension. The acting is uniformly strong. Frecheville as J is a continual presence. He is perhaps a bit too buttoned-up in manner, but he is also assured and physically memorable. A good feature is the way the other characters alternate in assuming dominance, first Edgerton as Baz, later Mendelsohn as Pope, finally the razer-sharp Pearce as the detective Leckie. Perhaps best of all is Jacki Weaver as the matriarch Smurf, whose insinuating, scary charm is unforgettable as she convincingly morphs from warm to despicable.
Animal Kingdom debuted at Sundance, where it won the “World Cinema – Dramatic” Grand Jury Prize, a big step toward the recognition it is sure to continue getting as the best 2010 crime drama so far and one of the year’s best films. It is released in UK cinemas 25th February.
DIRECTOR: DAVID MICHOD
CAST: JACKI WEAVER, GUY PEARCE, BEN MENDELSOHN, SULLIVAN STAPLETON, JAMES FRECHEVILLE
RUNTIME: 112 MINUTES