Movie Review: Animal Kingdom (2010)

James Frecheville and Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

David Michod is part of the Australian filmmaking group Blue Tongue Films alongside Nash Edgerton and other up and comers such as Spencer Susser and Luke Doolan. It’s a group of filmmakers loaded with potential and some have already started staking their claim. Edgerton released The Square earlier this year, Doolan was nominated for an Oscar for his excellent short film Miracle Fish and Susser has Hesher starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Natalie Portman coming soon. It’s a group to keep an eye on to say the least.

As for Michod, Animal Kingdom is his first feature length narrative of which he also wrote. It made a big splash at Sundance earlier this year and was promptly snatched up by Sony Pictures Classics. It’s a crime feature of a different sort, centered on the Cody family, which is made up of a group of three brothers and cared for by their lioness of a mother.

These cubs want to grow up to be kings in their own right, but they are really nothing more than low rent criminal thugs working the streets of Melbourne. And this family is falling apart as times are proving tough. The eldest of the pack, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), is hiding from a group of renegade cops. Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) has turned to dealing drugs and Darren (Luke Ford) is more or less along for the ride, and often pressured into simply going along. At the top of the food chain is Janine (Jacki Weaver), the boys’ mother whose presence is often seen, but only felt when necessary.

Things begin to change once Janine’s grandson, Joshua “J” Cody (James Frecheville), calls with news his mother has died of an overdose in what is easily the best, and most chilling, scene in the film. He’s instantly welcomed into the family and just as quickly finds himself pointing a gun at a street hoodlum that dared challenge Craig. Such is the life for a Cody family thug and J’s initiation is swift.

Unfortunately for J, things won’t be improving anytime soon. After a family friend and fellow partner in crime is murdered by the same dirty cops hunting down Pope, Animal Kingdom turns into a revenge tale. And with veteran investigative police officer Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce) on their tail things heat up quickly.

Considering the nature of the film, and its close study of a tight-knit crime family, don’t go in expecting clouds of cocaine and Cadillac Escalades. Michod offers no gloss to his delivery of this dirty business as the Cody family operates by the skin of their teeth and not with their wallets.

The casting is a bonus. Mendelsohn is convincing as an “on the edge” criminal. He takes it right to the edge in fact, but manages to remain within himself as opposed to becoming a caricature like so many actors before him. Stapleton I really liked as the middle brother, Craig. He’s got a character arc that goes from cocky to distressed in a flash and he pulls it off without a hitch. Ford is the innocent bystander and Weaver has the ability to make your skin crawl as the matriarch of the family whose eye is always watching.

However, the one performance that partially turned me off was newcomer James Frecheville as J. For what it’s worth, J is the film’s lead. Much of Animal Kingdom is seen from his perspective, and his “deer in the headlights” approach did nothing for me. With a wide-eyed blank stare and his mouth agape, I wanted to yell at the screen, “Do something!” I can handle a subdued performance, but someone needed to give him a good slap. Laura Wheelwright at least brought some energy to the party playing his girlfriend Nicky.

Despite a certain level of intrigue, the film started losing me near the end. I hadn’t bought into the conceit it was trying to sell me, or the pecking order Michod had set up. Essentially, the film doesn’t amount to much despite its ambition. It’s occasionally dramatic and, at times, thrilling, but Animal Kingdom never achieves a level of drama that I found myself so enthralled I couldn’t look away. I wouldn’t be surprised if it plays better on a second viewing, but at the moment I’m not sure I’m interested in finding out.