September 24, 2010

Animal Kingdom

Grade: B

Director: David Michôd

Starring: James Frecheville, Ben Mendelsohn, Guy Pearce, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton, and Jacki Weaver

MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

There is little honor among thieves – or police, for that matter – in the oh-so aptly named Animal Kingdom.

Audiences have long been primed to expect a contrasting balance of loyalty and pitiless expediency when it comes to pop-cultural portrayals of felonious families, whether the Corleones or the Sopranos. David Michôd’s Australian crime drama – his feature debut and the World Cinema dramatic Grand Jury Prize winner at this year’s Sundance film festival – presents a milieu in which the cruelest survive and devotion is a fungible commodity.

The lack of moral equilibrium hits you from the opening scene, in which 17-year-old Joshua (James Frecheville) – J for short – impassively watches a game show as paramedics futilely attempt to revive his smack-addict mother. As a virtual cipher, J is taken in by the rest of the Cody clan, an extended family led by the affectionately named Grandma Smurf (Jacki Weaver) and J’s three uncles – Darren (Luke Ford); Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), and Barry (Joel Edgerton) – bank robbers whose exploits are only shown over the opening credits via haunting black-and-white surveillance camera stills.

Duplicitous cops – some more interested in summary retribution than evidence gathering – are hot on the Codys’ trail, particularly after eldest brother and ringleader Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) resurfaces. The police’s Star Chamber tactics prompt a violent reprisal in the form of ambushing and gunning down two young police officers – the screenplay is loosely inspired by the real events surrounding the Walsh Street police shootings that took place in Melbourne in 1988.

One honest investigator, Leckie (Guy Pearce), zeroes in on J as the family’s weakest link and his best chance at turning someone state’s evidence. What follows is a sometimes subtle, often brutal battle for the J’s allegiance between Leckie, insane Pope, and a grandmother not afraid to flash her wizened talons when necessary.

A sociopathic vibe permeates Animal Kingdom, as the (threat of) violence that dictates every twist and turn feels not so much shocking as eerily inevitable. Degrees of depravity are the only way to assign relative villainy, and there are no heroes but rather those who don’t deserve to die as much as others. In this regard, Animal Kingdom reminded me of another Australian genre retooling, John Hillcoat’s neo-western The Proposition.

Michôd’s minimalist staging ratchets up the tension – a dead girl’s nearby ringing cell phone evokes more dread than her actual murder. A game cast – especially Frecheville and Mendelsohn – completes this crime family portrait that jumps past any glorification of their misadventures and instead wallows in their deconstruction. It’s Goodfellas without the wise-guy farce. And, while J’s ultimate character arc may loosely parallel Michael Corleone in The Godfather, the moral to Animal Kingdom is not “blood is thicker than water.” Instead, J quickly learns a different Corleone directive: Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

Neil Morris

*Originally published at

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