Animal Kingdom (2010)
Animal Kingdom is a tense and gripping Australian crime thriller which immerses us into the inner workings of the slowly unravelling Cody family. This isn’t a family in the Mafioso sense of the word, complete with an elaborate chain of command and vast resources to call upon. This family is very much a close-knit affair. The chillingly calm matriarch, Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody and her three loyal sons Pope, Craig and Darren, show little remorse for their actions and firmly believe in looking after their own first and foremost.
Into this dangerous and deadly world steps Smurf’s grandson Josh ‘J’ Cody, a quiet 17 year old whose Mum dies of a heroin overdose at the films outset. J is clearly aware of his family’s reputation but has also kept well way from it until now. With nowhere else to turn, he is thrust into Smurf’s household and slowly gets dragged into their illicit activities.
It is made clear early on that the Cody’s have proven a real menace to the local police and are held in such low regard that rogue cops will think nothing of shooting the brothers on sight. When one of their loyal henchmen meets his demise courtesy of the local law enforcement, the rest of the brothers seek revenge and set in place a chain of event which seems set to engulf the entire family. J tries to keep his distance throughout, even going as far as to move in with his girlfriend Nicky in an attempt to separate himself from his relatives. He soon realises however that the bond of family is hard to shake off and as long as his uncles are still acting outside the law, he is guilty by association.
J receives a possible lifeline thanks to Nathan Leckie, an honest cop played by Guy Pearce. Leckie reaches out to J and tries to convince him that he can be kept safe should he turn and give evidence against the rest of the Cody’s. As the film heads towards its climax, you are kept guessing as to what side of the law J will come down upon.
The movie is a gritty and un-glamorized portrayal of criminal life in inner city Australia. We are given an insight into the inner workings of the Cody clan and while it is apparent that Smurf is the figurehead in charge of the organisation, the muscle is handled by the unflinchingly violent Pope. Pope lingers over the first third of the film as an unseen dangerous presence spoken of only in hushed tones. When he finally enters the fray he is at first affable and seems too drab to be much of a threat. Very quickly though we realise that he will be the blue touch paper that will ignite and bring the whole family down. The whole cast is superb but it’s Ben Mendelsohn as Pope who really steals the show, exuding menace and intensity at every turn.
Director David Michod embraces this brooding tension superbly and the slow and steady pace he utilises merely allows for the sense of impending danger to grow. One stand out scenes which perfectly demonstrate this tension sees J’s girlfriend Nicky show up at the Cody’s home while J is away and she is welcomed in by Darren and Pope. Nicky is blissfully unaware that the two brothers are afraid of what she might know and they secretly want to silence her. It’s then an extremely difficult watch as you witness Pope at his Machiavellian best setting Nicky at ease whilst simultaneously planning the best way to guarantee she doesn’t talk.
Young J is capably played by James Frenchevile, whose quiet and aloof demeanour hides his obvious intellect and an awareness of the situation he is involved in. Towards the film’s end, when he is faced with the difficult decision between the law and his family, Frencheville gives nothing away as to which side he will choose and you begin to sense the boy is becoming a man in his own right.
Animal Kingdom is an extremely powerful crime thriller that relies on slow building tension rather than excessive violence and gunplay. On this evidence we can expect great things to come from its young debutant director.
Animal Kingdom is out on DVD and blu-ray 11th July 2011.
DIRECTOR: DAVID MICHOD
CAST: JACKI WEAVER, GUY PEARCE, BEN MENDELSOHN, SULLIVAN STAPLETON, JAMES FRECHEVILLE
RUNTIME: 112 MINUTES