Animal Kingdom is the extremely impressive debut from director David Michôd. Reminiscent of Andrew Dominik’s Chopper (2000) in its authentic portrayal of Australia’s underworld the film shows inner city Melbourne in all of its warts and all actuality a place where boredom leads to thrill seeking, drug taking and crime. If you were under the impression that a movie about a doomed crime family is going to be a cliché ridden washout then think again. Meticulous acting, thrilling set pieces and a gripping intelligent script combine to make Animal Kingdom one of the most original and realistic crime films in recent memory.
Animal Kingdom opens with 18 year old Joshua ‘Jay’ Cody (James Frecheville) sitting in the living room of his suburban Melbourne home watching television. As Jay blankly stares at a game show on TV his mother sits beside him dying of a massive heroin overdose. Given his bizarrely muted response to the situation and the later news that his mother has died it is apparent that the teenager’s life has not even closely resembled normality. However, when he gets back in touch with his estranged family Jay’s life disintegrates further as he is drawn into their nightmarish world of crime, violence and death. Through all of the adversity he faces the battle to live a normal and peaceful life proves to be the most difficult of all.
Surprisingly for a film which spends a lot of its time showing the relatively mundane suburban streets and houses of Melbourne Animal Kingdom also contains some astonishingly artistic camerawork. As Janine Cody (Jacki Weaver) embraces her newly recaptured grandson the camera draws in on a kitsch brass plate detailing a jungle inhabited by a pride of lions. As the scene transforms into a series of grainy CCTV stills of masked gunman operatic arias pour forth creating a terrifyingly beautiful montage. The overwhelming sense is that of almost immediately being drawn into an atmosphere of pure malevolence. Not since Malcolm McDowell’s devilish Alex smirked down the camera lens in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange has a film opened with such diabolical intent. However, unlike Kubrick’s 1971 masterpiece Animal Kingdom is contained within a wholly realistic world and is all the more powerful for it.
From the outside the Codys appear to be like any other working-class family. In one early sequence Craig charges around the house shouting about the family dog whilst Jay’s voiceover narrates each of their personality traits and criminal involvement. This scene also uncovers one of film’s major themes that evil is inescapable and lurks beneath the surface of almost every facet of life. Never was this truer than in case of the Cody boy’s mother and matriarch of the family Janine who defends her sons to the bitter end. Janine’s stance links back to the film’s title the instinctive law of the jungle or Animal Kingdom where a mother will do all she can to protect her young. Jacki Weaver gives an Oscar nominated performance which keeps us guessing whether she is woefully misguided or ruthlessly evil. Whatever the case may be Janine is terrifying in her certainty. The horrendous decree she makes half way through the film is one of the most shocking cinematic twists you are likely to see this year.
Mention must also be made of Ben Mendelsohn whose portrayal of Andrew “Pope” Cody is one of the most convincing and terrifying psychopaths since Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth. Totally impulsive and thoroughly deranged it is impossible for the audience to take their eyes off Pope as we witness a thousand and one sick thoughts running through his mind.
Guy Pearce, whose career is going from strength to strength coming off his portrayal of a self-indulgent Edward VIII in The King’s Speech, is the moral conscious of film as Detective Leckie who attempts to advise Jay. In a world of corrupt police and lawyers no one can be trusted an intense feeling of claustrophobia encircles Jay as he is given the impossible task of having to navigate the legal system whilst trying to escape from his own family.
For all of the immorality on display Animal Kingdom is an intensely moral film. Jay’s narration informs us that his uncles were all frightened even if they did not show it and that “crooks always come undone… always.” This morality is extremely ambiguous and opens up a number of questions regarding trust and family loyalty. Whilst there is something grand and Shakespearean in this tale of a doomed family the film remains firmed rooted in the reality of 21st Century Melbourne. Animal Kingdom is original, mesmerising and thoroughly deserving of all the lofty praise that has been heaped upon it.