Director: David Michôd
Beneath the pretense that necessarily comes with films about criminal mobs lies a basic story about family dysfunction. This is hinted at in the first scene of David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom, as young Josh Cody (James Frecheville) sits on a couch watching a TV game show whilst his mother sits unconscious next to him. She’s OD’d on heroin, and her resulting death forces Josh to go stay with his grandmother Janine (Jackie Weaver) and his uncles. It’s a cruel beginning to a film that sticks to a fairly rigid template, but does well within the constraints of the gangster genre.
To call Animal Kingdom a gangster movie is something of a misnomer, as calling the criminals in the film ‘gangsters’ would be to give them a little too much credit, organization-wise. The Cody clan includes the hotheaded Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), the baby-faced Darren (Luke Ford) and the menacing-yet-silent “Pope” (Ben Mendelsohn) and their friend Barry Brown (Joel Edgerton). We never see them partake in any robberies, but it’s clear that they’ve done well enough for themselves. All the while, Janine keeps a proud and motherly eye on them. The opening credits show freeze frames of apparent CCTV footage of the gang’s robberies, but Michôd knows that the real drama occurs amongst the family, and his script keeps overactive gunplay to a minimum. Barry is trying to go legit against a backdrop of increased aggression by the police mob squad. Mob cliché dictates that he will die, and it comes to pass early on. Once Barry exits stage left, Pope begins to fill the void he left behind, whilst Josh gets caught in between Pope’s machinations, his other uncles’ paranoia and a police detective (Guy Pearce) who wants to help Josh and take Pope down. Revelatory plotting? No, but it is all done well, as Michôd ratchets up the tension with sudden bursts of claret puncturing some tense exchanges.
Frecheville makes his feature acting debut as Josh. He sounds somewhat wooden at times, but perhaps that’s the point; he’s a young man subject to the influences of his unlawful uncles, and hasn’t found his own voice. Strecting a metaphor maybe but, in any case, he does fine. Mendelsohn makes for a creepy presence, whilst Pearce, Ford and Stapleton do good work with potentially stock characters. Weaver is the revelation, though, justifying her Oscar nomination with a ballsy portrayal, veering between motherly and murderous with ease. This ‘Godmother’ is one tough mutha.
Animal Kingdom may not have quite enough originality to stand next to the oft-compared Goodfellas. What it does have, however, is grit, great acting and gripping thrills. As crime dramas go, it’s head and shoulders above most recent American output from the same genre. This mob may be less monied than the Sopranos, but they’re just as dysfunctional and about as engrossing.