When a film opens with a teenager casually watching tv while his dead mother next to him is propped up on the couch from a heroin overdose, there’s a feeling that maybe this movie is going to be a bit dark. Animal Kingdom is a bleak and dispiriting drama about a crime family as it deteriorates under pressure from a police force that’s just as corrupt.
After his mother dies, reserved and awkward Joshua ‘J’ Cody (James Frecheville) is invited with open arms to stay with his grandmother and the uncles he barely knows.
Joshua isn’t sure what to make of his newfound family, because right off the bat you notice the Codys aren’t typically wholesome. Barry ‘Baz’ Brown (Joel Edgerton) and Darren Cody (Luke Ford) count stacks of cash on the dining room table, presumably from a recent bank robbery. Craig Cody (Sullivan Stapleton) zigzags through the house on a cocaine panic attack. And Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody (Jacki Weaver) who is far from a Smurf and more like a Momma Grizzly, speaks with deceptively melodic and endearing tones. She gives awkward lingering kisses on the lips of her grown sons as if to affirm a bond that she can still mother them, no matter what crimes these boys are capable of committing.
Jacki Weaver’s character has a sweet ‘Sally Struthers-like’ quality, as if she’s going to bake your favorite homemade pie then solicit you for a donation to her church. But she’s very much a manipulator who, despite not having control of her children, must always be in control of her own emotions and environment. However sweet she may be, you can bet she’s ready to hit you with blackmail, extortion or even murder to maintain the balance of her universe. In that respect, she just doesn’t give a shiz.
Baz is the brains of the operation. A husband and father himself, who has the presence of mind to leave the family business and go legit playing the stock market. He’s a symbol of what the Codys could potentially become when you have the means to live the rest of your life in some semblance of peace. But when the cops come looking for his oldest brother, Andrew ‘Pope’ Cody (Ben Mendelsohn) they try whatever it takes to smoke him out. And in their desperation, murder an unarmed Baz in cold blood, unbeknownst to them that Pope was watching from a distance, distraught and probably planning his revenge.
Quite the opposite of what his nickname suggests, Pope is a bonafide loose cannon. A psychopath refusing to take his meds. It’s never revealed why the cops are looking for him specifically, but it’s the angle they use to aggressively shake down the Cody family. Great performance by Mendelsohn who reveals much more with a cold, tense glare than with mere dialog alone. In one disturbing late night scene in particular, Pope covets J’s sleeping girlfriend, a teenage Nicky Henry (Laura Wheelwright), with a pedophilic creepiness as Air Supply’s 80’s hit, I’m All Out of Love plays on the tv. Gradually, one starts to realize that whatever the cops want him for, it probably wasn’t for jaywalking.
In retaliation to Baz’s murder, Pope organizes the execution of two patrol men the next night and soon the boys, including J, are taken into custody. Detective Senior Sergeant Leckie (Guy Pearce) sympathizes with J. He sees him as just a kid who’s in way over his head, too weak and afraid to get mixed up in a group like the Codys and tries to convince him to turn state’s evidence. But the Codys will have none of that and must test J’s loyalty to determine, regardless of blood, whether he remains family or just another unfortunate liability.
Writer/Director David Michôd’s first feature length film is a hard-hitting drama shot in an almost cinema-verite documentary style with some hand-held shots and bland, washed-out colors to emphasize the grittiness of its theme. His fully realized characters come to life with good direction and convincing ensemble performances by the cast, especially by Mendelsohn, Frecheville and most notably, Weaver.
This film is currently in limited release, but worth a look if it’s playing in your town.
4 of 5 Stars