An ambitious and powerful study of the disintegration of an Australian crime family, “Animal Kingdom” is orchestrated with a grandiosity that invokes operatic and Greek dimensions. Writer-director David Michod’s unusually accomplished feature debut unfolds with a confident, almost antiquated sense of deliberation as the family incrementally implodes, taking others down with it. Australian backdrop adds unusual flavor and texture to a genre more normally associated with American and British cinema and, given likely heft from positive critical reaction, this imposing picture looks in line for strong local biz and a good international run.
Noted on the fest circuit for his prize-winning 2007 short, “Crossbow,” and additionally present at Sundance this year as co-writer of the American competition entry “Hesher,” Michod adopts a brooding style not unlike that of Michael Mann to relate the endgame of the Cody family, a Melbourne criminal clan whose specialty of armed robbery is quickly becoming outmoded.
Opening with the sound of dogs barking and overwhelming dirge-like, quasi-religious music, the pic has a protag whose status as a related outsider gradually drawn into family matters reminds by turns of Michael in “The Godfather” and the young prisoner who learns the ropes in the recent “A Prophet.” When the mother of rugged, tight-lipped teenager Joshua Cody (James Frecheville) overdoses, he has no choice but to accept the hospitality of his maternal grandmother, Smurf Cody (Jacki Weaver), from whom his mother kept a great distance.
Outwardly, Smurf seems like a cheery suburban mum, presiding over a comfortable suburban home and loving her hunky grown sons so much she kisses them on the lips at every opportunity. In fact, however, she’s Ma Barker, a regular Bloody Mama who rules the criminal roost while her boys do the dirty work. While recently imprisoned eldest son Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) lays low, his bright business partner Baz (Joel Edgerton), who sees the writing on the wall, contemplates a switch to legit stock-market speculation. Younger sons Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), a volatile drug dealer who uses as much as he sells, and Darren (Luke Ford), a muscular softie, hang about as they await orders, while Joshua (like the viewer), tries to get the lay of the land.
When Baz is gunned down in broad daylight, the relatively balanced family dynamic begins spinning into chaos. With his rational mate Baz out of the picture, the seriously warped Pope steps up to fill the void. Suspicious, menacing and confrontational, Pope is a singularly odious reptile with the all the scruples of Richard III. But a mother loves all her sons and, with the remaining two unreliable and ineffectual, respectively, Pope assumes free rein.
Joshua is moved out of the house for a while to keep him away from the action, during which time he takes up with his hosts’ teen daughter (Laura Wheelwright). But when some cops are killed, police detective Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce) sees the youngster as a possible conduit to finger and bring down the Codys. Drama’s second half is dominated by gangsters, cops and lawyers trying to manipulate the taciturn kid while he tries to figure out where his true allegiances lie.
The Codys are not a heavyweight crime family with tentacles reaching into every part of society, but their influence in the justice and law enforcement system is such that they are shockingly able to compromise Leckie’s attempt to keep Joshua hidden. Anxiety and paranoia mount on all sides as Pope becomes progressively unhinged and unpredictable, Smurf decisively inserts herself into the action and Joshua doesn’t know whom to trust.
While the film is spiked with plenty of dust-ups among the guys and sporadic deadly attacks, Michod underplays bloody violence, emphasizing the brutal suddenness with which people’s lives are lost rather than the spectacle. He pulls off his modestly scaled setpieces with finesse and teasingly stirs up moods of fear and menace even when there may be no immediate payoff. Confidently unifying Adam Arkapaw’s bold widescreen lensing, Jo Ford’s unshowy but evocative production design and a score by Antony Partos that might get too big at times but unmistakably announces the film’s ambition and mood of dread, Michod shows a strong hand for a first-time director.
Performances are rich, led by Weaver in the unusual role of the blond ringleader with iron under her pert veneer and Mendelsohn as her unnerving, mentally ill-equipped eldest son. Edgerton dominates the action in the early going, while Pearce, wearing a mustache, takes up the baton in the latter stages. In line with Joshua’s observer status, young Frecheville plays it very close to the vest, perhaps in too clenched a manner compared with the Aussie expansiveness of most of the other characters.