Animal Kingdom is an Australian crime film from first time director David Michôd. With the focus primarily on the dynamics of a family of criminals and with hints at institutional corruption, Animal Kingdom sets up the structure of a traditional crime film but adds its own particular ideas and nuances. The result is a film that feels fresh whilst also remaining reasonably mainstream.
The film follows Joshua Cody (James Frecheville) as he enters his grandmother’s household (Jacki Weaver) and becomes embroiled in his uncles’ criminal gang. Guy Pearce lends support as a cop who thinks he can get Joshua to talk when he becomes privy to information about a double murder. To give anything else away is to ruin the surprises.
Boldly avoiding the gangster movie aesthetics of Scorsese and Tarantino, Animal Kingdom eschews the pumping soundtrack and lingering focus on gratuitous violence for a more restrained style, which hits closer to home. The violence, when it happens, is sudden and usually unexpected, with the emphasis on the confusion and shock of the aftermath rather than on splatter effects. In the end, it is the performances that keep the film moving, from Joshua’s demonic grandmother to each of his troubled uncles. Jacki Weaver and Ben Mendelsohn give sterling performances, as do the tougher and more likable Joel Edgerton and Sullivan Stapleton, whose roles seems more suited to the films of Scorsese and Tarantino though they never descend into caricature. Together they make a convincing family, one that is as loving as they are suffocating and, ultimately, murderous.
Joshua’s dilemma is effectively unravelled, and the film, though not flawless, is remarkably well handled for a debut. It moves at a fast pace, though it leaves time for the characters to breathe. It never feels false or unconvincing. Frecheville may not be another Conor McCarron, but we are certainly behind him, as he gets deeper and deeper into the inner lives of the sinister Cody family. The film works as a crime film with shades of neo-noir with its troubled characters, compromised morality and corrupt institutions. The focus of the film is not in the levels of this corruption, but on the effect it has on the characters. Like The Hurt Locker, its success, in many ways, lies in its refusal to contemplate the bigger picture. However, the film also works as a thriller, with more good jolts than an average horror film and many nerve-rackingly suspenseful sequences. And, to emphasise, it is also refreshingly unexpected in the way that only an apparently conventional film can be.
The lasting impression of a film like Animal Kingdom, aside from the future greats that are most certainly ahead of the film’s director, is a sense of the crime family. Key as it is in all the best crime films, from Howard Hawks’ Scarface to The Godfather and, to a certain extent, Mean Streets, it is fertile ground for crime cinema. A film like Animal Kingdom succeeds in getting under the skin of one such family, shedding light on it’s loyalties, it’s betrayals and it’s petty grudges. As a result, Animal Kingdom is entertainment cinema at its most productive.