Title: Animal Kingdom
Genre: Crime, Drama
Play time: 1h 53min
Director: David Michôd
Screenwriters: David Michôd
Starring: James Frecheville, Guy Pearce, Joel Edgerton
Joshua Cody (James Frecheville) is the kind of person we encounter every day, but almost never in the movies. Dead-eyed and silent, he prefers to say and do as little as possible, mindlessly following the herd. The saying “if everyone else jumped off a bridge” was invented for him. He’s not dumb, but simply content to let others think for him. Even his nickname, “J,” is an expression of passivity; of surrender.
Remarkably, J is at the center of David Michod’s riveting crime drama Animal Kingdom, narrating the film and providing its emotional center. When his mother dies of a drug overdose — he greets the news by calmly dialing the paramedics and blankly staring at Deal or No Deal on the tube until they come — J is thrust into the petty criminal universe of his four uncles, who comprise an armed robbery ring under fire by the cops. The cops have finally got something on their ringleader, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), who has gone into hiding. When a policeman shoots another of their number, Barry (Joel Edgerton), in cold blood, Pope returns and goads the rest of the family — Darren (Luke Ford) and Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) — into taking revenge. Joshua, who knows his uncles are crooks but isn’t up on the details, is semi-wittingly swept into the plot, and becomes the main target of the investigating officer (Guy Pearce), who shrewdly figures that J can be turned.
The obvious reference point here is Goodfellas — violent thugs with delusions of grandeur, and the wisdom that such people “always come undone.” But where that film was about the pervasive denial of those on the inside, Animal Kingdom turns out to be about the empowerment of those on the outside. J stands for everyone who permits his uncles’ miniature reign of terror — who are complicit by doing nothing. Such people, the film suggests, far from avoiding trouble, make themselves targets.
Apart from being its thematic fulcrum, J’s disengagement also surprisingly sharpens the film’s visceral impact. Since J has no criminal ambitions of his own, it is acutely painful to watch the vise gradually tighten around him — like some of his uncles’ victims, he is threatened with a comeuppance that he doesn’t much deserve. And when he finally does shake out of his stupor and take some action, it’s at once a surprise, a resolution, and the culmination of a character arc.
The movie, Michod’s first narrative feature, is a moody slow-burner punctuated by bursts of violence, little of it graphic. Things go south with the merciless logic of a Greek tragedy. It is neither an upbeat film nor a conventional one, but it’s tightly wound and expertly paced — as engaging as any Hollywood thriller.
What everyone will remember about Animal Kingdom, I suspect, is the character of J’s grandmother Janine, played by veteran Australian character actress Jacki Weaver. An unassuming modern-day Ma Barker, Janine quietly goes to astounding lengths to keep her sons out of jail, at one point crossing, it would seem, out of the realm of sanity. Her sons, after all, are all she has, and there are only so many a mother can bury.