A tale of a crime family much smaller and far less prosperous than the one headed by the Corleones in the “Godfather” pictures, the Australian “Animal Kingdom” is nevertheless as fascinating in its own way as Francis Ford Coppola’s epic trilogy, especially since it features two characters whose casual malevolence is even more shocking when set in such a drably lower-middle-class milieu. And its bursts of violence are even more effective because they’re so abrupt—and so brief.
David Michod’s debut feature was inspired by actual events in Melbourne, but they served merely as a springboard for a story centered on teenager Joshua Cody (James Frecheville), nicknamed J, who after the overdose death of his mother is welcomed into the home of his grandmother Janine, or Smurf (Jacki Weaver). She’s a smiling, affectionate—indeed, overaffectionate—widow who presides over a brood of criminal sons. One, Barry, or Baz (Joel Edgerton), is a rational fellow who recognizes the need to step away from their usual bank-robbing ways into legal activities like working the stock market. But his brothers are of very different attitudes. Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is a wacko drug dealer, and Darren (Luke Ford) a hapless follower. But the worst is Andrew, nicknamed Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), recently sprung from prison—a volatile psychopath, a man who though meek and mild-mannered on the surface is a brooding schemer who can explode into brutality at any provocation.
Thrust into the deceptively ordinary but simmering world of this family, J finds himself and his girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright) inevitably drawn into their activities, particularly after Baz is summarily gunned down by a bunch of corrupt cops. Pope spearheads an act of revenge—the random massacre of a couple of policemen—and enlists J to steal the car that serves as bait for the trap. A clean investigator, Sergeant Leckie (Guy Pearce), removes J from the Cody household to persuade him to turn state’s evidence, but both the boy and Nicky become the target of the suspicious Pope, and when it becomes clear that J may be a liability, Smurf—who’s clearly as brutally practical-minded, and more efficient than, any of her sons—intervenes to save her darlings, and J must change course to save himself and take revenge as well.
What gives “Animal Kingdom” its punch is the performance of Weaver as the matriarch of this small-time bunch of hoods, a smiling cobra but a snake nonetheless, and that of Mendelsohn as her eldest son, a fellow all the more frightening for seeming so mild and even clownish. Their relationship has a bit of the mother-son vibe of “White Heat” to it, though not quite at the same level of intensity. Beside them Edgerton, Ford and Stapleton, solid as they are, are cast in the shade, as is even Pearce, who brings a sweaty integrity to the overmatched Leckie.
Where the picture stumbles is in juvenile lead, who’s serving the Michael Corleone function here. J has to be a character that’s difficult to read, but in Frecheville’s performance he comes across as more vacant than opaque. It’s not that you’re unaware of what he’s thinking; it’s that he doesn’t seem to be thinking at all.
But while that’s a serious defect, it’s not fatal, simply because what’s happening around the young man is so absorbing. And the ambiance—gritty but basically commonplace—has been well caught by the technical team and captured by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw. Antony Partos’ score gets a bit blowsy at times, but overall adds to the mood.
“Animal Kingdom” shows that the gangster movie is alive and well, even as the corpses pile up. And even Down Under.