Most good crime dramas are nasty, blood-soaked affairs from the likes of Martin Scorsese or Michael Mann or Brian de Palma, and, usually, the best of them blister with heists, double-crossings and ass-kicking shootouts that take the form of a bullet-ridden ballet.
Not this one. No, David Michod’s new film Animal Kingdom succeeds precisely because it bucks the genre’s conventions. Sure, there’s violence in this movie, but it’s unusually brief and shocking. Yes, there’s some blood, but it’s more in the ties that bind brothers and nephews and mothers and friends. It’s a tense, taut, well-written, well-acted drama about a Melbourne family on the wrong side of the law, what they do when the noose starts to tighten and what they’re willing to do if it turns out the hangman is one of their own.
Josh “J” Cody (James Frecheville) has nowhere to turn after his mother overdoses and dies. He’s a rangy, quiet young man who’s taken in
by his grandmother, Janine (Jacki Weaver), a schemer whose other children are all career criminals doing their best to stay alive and out of jail. These aren’t the made men of Goodfellas or the vicious immigrants of Scarface, just thieves and crooks with limited education and a mother who never steered them in a legitimate direction. Josh’s mother did her best to shield him from this life, but now that she’s gone, he has to make some decisions about the family business.
Sure, there’s something exciting about a criminal lifestyle, about being a tough guy and waving a gun at anyone who steps up to you. But J is moving in at a time when business isn’t very good. His eldest uncle, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), is hiding out, convinced the police’s Armed Robbery Squad is gunning for him. Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is coked-up, having shifted from robberies to dealing. The youngest brother, Darren (Luke Ford), knows no other vocation, and their partner in crime, Barry (Joel Edgerton), is trying to get out of the business. The house is constantly watched by the cops, and even though he’s got his girlfriend, Nicky (Laura Wheelwright), who comes from a decent family, J’s options are few, because the police consider him one of the Codys— and his relatives do, too.
It’s a powder keg waiting to blow, emotionally and figuratively, and it takes only one act of violence to start the dominos tumbling. Once they start to fall, it’s only a matter of time before the family implodes and J has to decide which side he’s going to play for. Yes, blood is thicker than water, but when that blood is shed, there’s Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce, looking older and weary), who offers him protection and stability, something this young man has never had.
Newcomer Frecheville gives a performance that’s hard to read, with his eyes down, rarely making contact with anyone. He’s a shy boy whose size belies an introspective nature. Is he tough to get a bead on? Absolutely, but so are many teens—it’s just that this one is surrounded by seasoned, surly adults. Pearce, taking a smaller role, anchors J’s trauma, casting a net around him in an absolutely sincere manner. Weaver is cold and calculating as the matriarch who watches her children get arrested on a regular basis, and Mendelsohn as Pope is the hardest to watch. His is a fascinating performance, because the character is an obvious sociopath, wracked with grief and heroin and a genuine desire to do right by the other members of his family. But he’s entirely unequipped to do anything like that, and he’s a terrifying presence to be around. Pope doesn’t intimate through size or threats—he’s just one calm, edgy, scary dude, and you always get the sense that he could snap and do something horrific at any moment.
In some ways, you’ve seen this before. A crooked family prone to violence, a reluctant witness, a beleaguered cop. But Michod has pulled this off in a way that feels welcome and unfamiliar. Life in the Cody family is a jungle, and only the strong—or smart—survive.