Running Time: 113 minutes.
Rating: R for violence, drug content and pervasive language.
Written and Directed by: David Michôd
Starring: Ben Mendehlson, Joel Edgerton, Jacki Weaver, Guy Pearce, Luke Ford, James Frecheille, Sullivan Stapleton
It only takes a glance or two at Janine Cody (Jacki Weaver) to figure out she’s one of the great evil mothers in the movies. Inexplicably nicknamed ‘Smurf’ and lavishing manipulative and twisted affection upon her criminal brood of 3 demented sons, Janine is the monstrous matriarch at the center of David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom. The Australian thriller, Michod’s first, unfolds with the stoic and dread confidence of its female antagonist, painting a gritty portrait of seedy downfall and inevitable corruption. Although it can’t get out if its single-minded, calculated trajectory (which boils the universe down to noir signposts) Kingdom is a worthy debut, telling a difficult story with a surprising adherence to realism.
The film begins with a virtual innocent, Josh ‘ J’ Cody, being absorbed into Janine’s family business. J is her grandson, and he ends up in her care because he has nowhere else to go after his mother overdoses. In an opening scene of powerful, uneasy detail, we see J staring dumbly at a television program as his mother slowly dies, the paramedics clamoring around him to try and revive her prone body. The sequence sets up the next series of scenes, which introduce us to J’s relatives, including Janine, and her sons, the stunted mama’s boy Darren (Luke Ford), the drugged-up Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), and the creepy, formidable leader, Andrew aka ‘Pope’ (Ben Mendelsohn). Also in tow is Andrew’s partner, Barry ‘Baz’ Brown. ‘Baz’, unlike the others, is fed-up and tired of this life, and he urges Andrew to pick up something else, like maybe investing in stocks. Baz is the only who offers any sort of kindness or nurture to J, but when things go terribly wrong, and the family hunkers down in survival mode, the young man finds himself trapped in a spiraling nightmare that presents him with a choice; join the dangerous, divisive pack of Codys or confide in police detective Leckie (Guy Pearce) who wants to help him escape his predicament.
There is a curious, detached quality to the direction in Animal Kingdom, and it offers an observer’s objectivity, treading similar ground to early Scorsese. It isn’t as expansive and nuanced as Mean Streets, but it offers a compelling exploration of circumstance and human choice. There’s a desaturated color palette and a no-frills cinematography that regards the Codys through a tarnished, indifferent lens. Even the violence, which one expects as a matter of course, is muted. The grislier bits usually occur off screen, but the plotting and traumatic aftermath hit as hard as any visual damage. All of this emotional distance gives the audience the opportunity to bear testament to the sad and inevitable fall of a sordid clan of career criminals.
Although it rarely backs down from the genuine cruelty and self-preservation of its situation, Animal Kingdom and its director can’t quite find the notes that will lift it into a genuine noir. It isn’t emotionally inclusive enough for that, eschewing hope and the potential for redemption, and focusing almost 2-dimensionally on the festering kennel of feral dogs at its center. In the great noir thrillers, like Double Indemnity and Laura, the distant light of good intentions was just as important as the resulting darkness the characters found themselves mired in. Scorsese, in particular, has a strong gift for rounding out his characters with compassion and a sense of understanding. Because of a refusal to see anything but the general despicableness of Janine’s gang, Animal Kingdom plays more like a B-movie thriller than a complex crime drama.
But if his reach exceeds his grasp, Michôd makes good on his promise of a dangerous, toothy entertainment. His performers, particularly Jacki Weaver as Janine, are intuitively tuned to the darkness living under the skin of their characters, and each approach is based around a plausible justification of reprehensible behavior. Everyone here, even the scared and confused Josh, is lying to themselves, and by extension, each other. Weaver draws down a scary resolve and mashes the surly maternity of Ma Barker with the conniving opportunism of Lady MacBeth. She has a scene where she’s speaking to the cops, and it’s the moment where Weaver the performer is letting mama Cody unsheathe her claws, let her fangs down, and drop the wounded scavenger act. Mendelsohn is the film’s heavy, and he turns on the menace immediately and then hides it under a series of carefully tuned mannerisms. These seem at first like the tics of an inexperienced actor, but then, the narrative will turn and Andrew will reveal a new, terrifying side and we realize that the idiosyncrasies belong to Pope, not Mendelsohn. Frecheville’s approach to Josh is one bathed in uncertain fear, and instinctual avoidance. He was 17 when the picture was filmed and ably carries the big moments on his shoulders.
Given a choice of Animal Kingdom and last year’s similarly twisted and turned The Square, I favor the latter film, which made its characters more dramatically convincing as rounded people. I could better understand their flaws because they hadn’t so completely shed their humanity. What Animal Kingdom shows us are people who have adopted a code of living that betrays the structure of civilization around them. The Codys have committed to a life based around feeding urge and need, and once survival becomes their greatest necessity, there’s no net of moral conceit to keep them in check. I have no doubt this is plausible and realistic to the criminal element, but here it dramatically flattens what is initially on its way to being one of the year’s best films. Still, this is a worthy and brutal movie, planting its rotten-to-the-core family in your psyche and letting them fester there.