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Dominance and drama in an Australian crime film
by Molly Templeton
ANIMAL KINGDOM: Written and directed by David Michôd. Cinematography, Adam Arkapaw. Editor, Luke Doolan. Music, Antony Partos. Starring Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver, Sullivan Stapleton and James Frecheville. Sony Pictures Classics, 2010. R. 112 minutes.
The Australian crime-family film Animal Kingdom begins in deceptive quiet. Expressionless, Josh Cody (James Frecheville) — often called just J — sits in front of a game show, a woman slumped at the other end of the couch. The horror of the scene isn’t immediately apparent. Then the EMTs arrive. Josh has quietly lost his mother to a heroin overdose. This is the way violence flares in writer-director David Michôd’s film, his first feature. Usually there’s more blood, but its arrival is swift and simple and horribly unavoidable.
Tall, a little lumpy and prone to looking blank, his mouth half open, Josh doesn’t have a clue what to do. He reaches out to his closest kin, his grandmother, whom he hasn’t seen in years. Grandma Smurf (Jacki Weaver), as she’s nicknamed, plays the coy, flirty, sweet matriarch to her trio of dangerous sons, all of whom have a past as bank robbers. But times are changing and they’re coming undone — just as Josh arrives in their midst.
Though Animal Kingdom’s title is a little heavy-handed — ideas about power and dominance and protecting the weak are sprinkled throughout — Michôd has a fairly subtle touch. The film is striped with cool tones; the small touches of worn clothes and unremarkable cars heighten the realistic feel; Antony Partos’ unusual score bristles with dissonance that’s particularly effective at evoking the instability of Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), the oldest of Smurf’s boys. Pope is the only one the cops maybe have anything on, but the cops maybe don’t care about that. Michôd carefully avoids defining the lines of power and corruption, letting dominance slide believably between cops and robbers or between members of the Cody family, some of whom are beginning to look for other sources of cash flow.
Michôd’s story stays close to J, who looks almost like a man and acts like a boy just going along with whatever his family expects of him. He seems neither horrified nor delighted when his uncle tells him to threaten a couple of thugs who try to intimidate them; whether a life outside the law appeals to J isn’t immediately apparent. Eventually, though, in the wake of tragedy, J’s uncles need his help. And things, as they tend to do, escalate. Further complicating the situation is the interference of a cool but kind detective, Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce, hidden under a monster moustache), who carefully works to lure J out from his family’s influence. The relationship between Leckie, an honest cop, and Josh, who’s so uncertain about who or what he is, makes a tiny core of kindness at the center of the film.
Paranoia and distrust saturate the latter half of Animal Kingdom as J ricochets between home, the cops and, too briefly, the ordinary home of his girlfriend, who fights with her mom like a normal teenager. Michôd trails J through escalating brutality as he gets further entangled with what turns out to be a fairly far-flung net of corruption. It’s not what happens that makes Animal Kingdom unforgettable, but how it happens: Force is muted but no less deadly, and the calm that settles over those so thoroughly steeped in violence is all the more horrifying as a result.
Animal Kingdom opens Friday, Sept. 10, at the Bijou.