Gripping Aussie crime. You know you are in store for a good movie when the first scene latches onto you with a brand new perspective you haven’t seen before. You’re in the hands of a director – in this case writer-director David Michod – who knows what he’s doing. Animal Kingdom is an Australian crime movie that turns a teen character into an observer, then reluctant participant, then mortal target, and because of that, he becomes a cautionary tale. Not so life-affirming as entertainment, but it’s intriguing in a brute and gnarly way, keeping your eyes glued to the screen.
In the first scene, our perspective shifts about what we think is happening. J (James Frecheville) watches television in a stupor while his mother is spread out on the couch. The simple two-shot has us believe they are having family time in front of the television. The police arrive, the paramedics as well, which reveals that the mum is dead – she overdosed on drugs. J has nowhere to go as a 17-year old, so he calls his estranged grandmother Smurf Cody (Jacki Weaver, a mesmerizing schizoid performance) to house him. This turns into a life-changing mistake. Her whole family consists of three criminal sons who are sociopaths and thieves and dealers.
You might get the sense that this is going to be one of those downbeat and nothing goes right crime sagas where are good boy falls into the trappings of criminal code, and you would be correct with that assumption. This is one of those movies that will keep you watching as an engrossing gritty docudrama even though there are no new lessons that you haven’t learned before.
The Cody boys are played by Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton and Sullivan Stapleton, and if you’ve never heard of them that’s okay. All you need to know is that they create screen personas as natural born bad boys. When the cops shoot one of them without regards to procedure, it incites the Cody boys to go on their own cop killing spree. They get J to steal the car that will be used to deceive two other unwitting cops.
Guy Pearce, as the seasoned and diplomatic detective Nathan Leckie, wants to package together a case against the Cody boys. He has a concern for J, and he wants him to bring together evidence against his relatives but remain safe doing it. Also in the mix is J’s new girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright), an innocent girl who deserves none of the mess that she stumbles into. One ponders that it would have been better if J never had a girlfriend in the first place. The Cody boys end up tearing her apart, in ways that are more than just figurative, and force her to make a disgraceful decision.
The 17-year old J has to make some adult, potentially gruesome, decisions. This is the first full-length feature by Michod, who has a number of award-winning short films to his credit (his short “Crossbow” is supposedly his most celebrated). He has with “Animal Kingdom” made a crime film with true to life density, the kind that American filmmaker Michael Mann (“Manhunter,” “The Insider”) gets praised for. If any fault the film ends on a premature note, but it’s not impossible to put the leftover pieces together.
112 Minutes. Rated R.
CRIME DRAMA / CHARACTER STUDY / FALL MOVIE
Film Cousins: “The Onion Field” (1979); “The Grifters” (1990); “The Krays” (1990, Great Britain); Panic” (2000).