Based on true events, David Michôd’s debut feature Animal Kingdom follows the criminal exploits of a Melbourne family when three brothers become embroiled in a bitter, retaliatory war with the city’s police force. Innocent and not-so-innocent blood is shed in this tense, tough drama, which features several good performances and wisely favours short bursts of realistic action over prolonged chase scenes or shootouts.
Michôd, who also wrote the screenplay, throws a curveball of sorts with his very first scene, during which we see teenager Joshua ‘J’ Cody (James Frecheville) sitting on the sofa with his mother. It looks as though she has drifted off to sleep while watching a quiz show, but that’s not the case, and the director’s matter-of-fact treatment of what comes next is as troubling as it is intriguing. J subsequently seeks shelter with his estranged grandmother, Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody (Jacki Weaver, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance), a loyal but ruthless matriarch who has a disturbing penchant for planting lingering kisses on the lips of her three sons. Her boys, a gang of armed robbers, are easily-led youngest Darren (Luke Ford), drug-dealing loose cannon Darren (Sullivan Stapleton) and Andrew (Ben Mendelsohn), aka ‘Pope’, the psychopathic oldest sibling and one of the primary targets for the city’s police force.
At the beginning of the film Pope is in hiding and the two other brothers are also laying low, joined by partner-in-crime Baz (Joel Edgerton). The Cody family is a less fearsome prospect without Pope’s presence, and as such the quiet, withdrawn J and his girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright) settle in Smurf’s house with a degree of comfort, despite the fact it is being monitored by the police. This period of serenity ends abruptly when Pope finally turns up; Mendelsohn’s character is a nasty piece of work, and the actor delivers a fine performance that leaves you dreading each appearance he makes. The character’s arrival in a room is a surefire guarantee of sudden awkwardness, and other characters seem more alert and wary when he is present, even his mother and brothers. It’s a little like Joe Pesci’s turn in GoodFellas, or Robert Carlyle’s in Trainspotting, in that you’re constantly waiting for something terrible to unfold whenever he is on screen; Michôd and Mendelsohn, having established the character’s threat, milk the dread for all it’s worth.
With the police watching, Baz suggests that the gang should branch out and start playing the stock market – an unlikely change of career, perhaps, but still a kind of daylight robbery nonetheless – but Pope’s insistence on persevering with bank jobs suggests it’s an addiction or even a primitive urge, the first of several links to the film’s title. Later on, after a worrying escalation of activities on both sides of the law, Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce) realises he has a chance of turning J when the youngster is brought in for questioning. Leckie’s big speech suggests that the Cody family is like the animal kingdom in miniature, and that J must find his place in the pecking order, words that resonate as the film reaches its bloody denouement.
The drama comes from the ‘will-he-won’t-he’ question that hangs over J while he is in police custody and, later, under witness protection as an important court date looms. At the same point in time that Leckie identifies J as a possible weak link, so do his uncles and his grandmother, but in a very different way. Will he stay loyal to his extended family, despite the fact they are planning some foul business behind his back with conspiratorial lawyer Ezra White (Dan Wyllie)? Or are the brutal actions of Pope gradually turning J against the family, ensuring that he will testify against them? Up to a point it’s a well-handled dilemma, with J’s stoned, passive demeanour disguising both his thoughts and any signs of trauma caused by earlier events in the film. However, at a crucial point, Michôd jumps forward in time (hours? days? weeks?) and the slow build up to the trial feels oddly wasted, like a balloon has been pricked.
Aside from this I have very little negative to say, although it probably should be pointed out that Animal Kingdom isn’t exactly a groundbreaking work. However there is much to admire: Michôd’s film is well-paced, for a start, bookended by two shocks with sudden, regular swells of violence at its tensest peaks. These are uniformly depressing, given that this is a film partly about unnecessary bloodshed and an escalating conflict in which neither side can ever hope to ‘win’, and in which several minor characters who appear to be innocent lose their lives. Each death in this film is sudden, and the killings are always unexpected, while no-one receives the honour of speaking poignant last words. I liked its harshness.
The cast is impressive, particularly Mendelsohn and Weaver, though I also enjoyed the performances of the other actors; there are no apparent weak links here, and the film and its characters feel satisfyingly convincing as a result. Also worthy of mention is Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography, an unflashy take on suburban Melbourne that occasionally makes good use of natural and artificial light. Yet Michôd’s writing stands out above all else. In his screenplay there is an overwhelming sense of the futility of a criminal code – an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, at its simplest – which dictates the actions of the Cody family, and one of the tragic aspects of the film is that J has also bought into this approach by the end. There’s also very little counterbalancing the moral turpitude of the three brothers or Smurf: there are corrupt police officers, and some are even more bloodthirsty than the robbers they pursue, while the wise but frustrated Leckie stands out as a lone beacon of honesty. In this sharply-written and gripping crime drama, a kitchen sink version of The Godfather, his job is seemingly impossible.
Directed by: David Michôd.
Written by: David Michôd.
Starring: James Frecheville, Jacki Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Sullivan Stapleton, Guy Pearce, Laura Wheelwright, Luke Ford, Dan Wyllie.
Cinematography: Adam Arkapaw.
Editing: Luke Doolan.
Music: Antony Partos.
Running Time: 113 minutes.