Appellate Judge Tom Becker is king of the forest—not queen, not duke, not prince.
A crime story.
"Have you worked out where you fit in?"
Facts of the Case
When his mother dies of a heroin overdose, 17-year-old Joshua "J" Cody (James Frecheville) goes to Melbourne to stay with his grandmother, Janine "Smurf" Cody (Jacki Weaver, Picnic at Hanging Rock).
J's mother had kept her son away from the rest of the Cody family, and for good reason. Janine's three sons are criminals: "Pope" (Ben Mendelsohn, $9.99), the eldest, is an armed robber, working with his best friend, Baz (Joel Edgerton, Smokin' Aces) and youngest brother, Darren (Luke Ford, Ghost Machine); middle son Craig (Sullivan Stapleton, December Boys) is a drug dealer and major drug user.
Law enforcement wants the Codys, bad, particularly the sociopathic Pope, but the "boys"—aided greatly by their mother—are always a step ahead. But not all law enforcement officers play fair.
The aimless J is at first easily sucked in and seems on his way to being yet another criminal Cody boy. But things happen, and the youth finds his loyalties tested, by both a sympathetic cop (Guy Pearce, Memento) and Nicky (Laura Wheelwright), a girlfriend who has a good, solid family, even if she's not above some less-than solid behavior every now and again.
Animal Kingdom doesn't explode off the screen; rather, this Australian import simmers, offering an unglamorous, uncompromising look at a low-rent family of criminals. While I've seen it compared to American gangster films, writer/director David Michôd eschews the flash for a bleak, compelling, character-driven crime drama.
The Codys are ruthless, violent people, and both Pope and Craig have strong sadistic streaks. While Craig is more of a drug-addled bully, it's Pope who is a true psychopath, more quietly—and effectively—vicious and terrifying. But if it takes a monster to create a monster, then Pope is unquestionably his mother's son. Janine is there for Pope as she is for all her boys, fawning, affectionate, intimate; matriarch and seductress, she keeps her boys "in line" with lingering kisses and murmurs, hearty meals and a semblance of home. Then there's J, the "new cub" who's more disaffected than intrigued, yet malleable.
Rather than giving us scenes of protracted physical violence, Michôd creates a stifling atmosphere of dread and paranoia, a sense that at any point, the tenuous threads holding the situation—and the family—together can, and will, snap. Michôd's methodical pacing might seem slow at first, but when things start to unravel, they do so with gut-wrenching amount of tension and efficiency. The script offers betrayals, twists, and bloody retribution, much of it shocking, but the film has such a clear and logical construction, it never feels slapped together or sensational.
Michôd also elicits remarkable performances from his cast, particularly Frecheville, in his screen debut, as J; Mendelsohn as the menacing Pope; and especially Oscar nominee Weaver, whose nuanced portrait of benign evil is absolutely chilling.
Sony's disc looks great, with a solid 2.35 anamorphic transfer and Dolby Surround audio track. We get a nice slate of supplements: commentary by Michôd, a "making of" featurette, and a Q&A with Michôd and some cast members at the L.A. Film Festival.
A strong, sobering, well-acted crime film from Australia, Animal Kingdom is highly recommended.
Unlike the Cody family, Animal Kingdom is not guilty.
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