Director: Ben Michôd
Starring: James Frecheville, Jacki Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn
Ben Michôd’s crime drama Animal Kingdom begins with a startling scene. A teenage boy sits on a couch watching TV. Beside him is a woman slightly slumped over. A moment later two paramedics show up and the boy calmly confirms that the woman – who is his mother – has had an overdose. As the paramedics go to work on her, the boy glances back and forth between the attempt to revive his mother and the television. This scene will be mirrored later when his grandmother calmly steeps her tea while five feet away two of her sons are being arrested by a crew of police officers. If nothing else, I suppose the family should be commended on their ability to deal with stress.
Following his mother’s death, 17-year-old Joshua, known as “J” and played by James Frecheville, calls his grandmother, Smurf (Jacki Weaver – and, no, the nickname is never explained, though I assume that it has to do with her short stature). He hasn’t seen his grandmother or any other member of the family in quite some time, but he doesn’t know what else to do. Smurf takes him in and he quickly becomes an unwitting part of the Cody crime family which includes his uncles Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), Darren (Luke Ford), and Pope (Ben Mendelsohn). Things get heated when family friend (and gang cohort) Baz (Joel Edgerton) is killed by police, prompting the brothers to avenge his death by killing two police officers. They can’t prove it, but the police know that the Codys are behind the killings, and in J they spot the weak link through which they can make their case.
Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce) is the detective in charge of the investigation and sets about working on J, trying to convince him that the family would sooner sacrifice him than protect him. Up until now J’s detachment has served him well, allowing him to be part of the family while still being apart from everyone, but his passivity has reached its limit: he’s at a point when he has to make a decision one way or another. The decision is ultimately made for him with the death of his girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright) and he becomes an informant, however, this is far from the end of the story.
Animal Kingdom is a slow burning film that starts off rather slow but steadily builds momentum. This progression a reflection of J’s place within the story. He’s an outsider who doesn’t entirely understand or maybe even recognize what’s going on around him and doesn’t particularly want to; for a while he seems to think that if he just keeps going straight ahead, not asking questions, that he’ll somehow be able to keep himself from getting involved. He’s an incredibly passive character for the first half of the film, and as he becomes more active and actually starts to develop a sense of agency within the story, the story itself picks up the pace. This shift occurs gradually and is incredibly effective because the slowness of the first half lulls you into one mind set and so your system receives a bit of a shock when the action gets ramped up in the second.
Animal Kingdom is a success both because Michôd takes a great deal of care in constructing the frame of the narrative and because he’s able to establish and explore the characters in a way that is efficient without sacrificing depth. Craig and Darren, despite the things they’ve done, often behave like scared boys, quick to panic and in need of protection. Protection comes in the form of the much more cool-headed Smurf and Pope, characters who are willing and able to take charge and capable of shutting off all human feeling in order to do so. Weaver and Mendelsohn both deliver performances that can perhaps best be described as chilling. Smurf is a character whose maternal softness masks steel, while Pope is a more obviously sinister character, a snake waiting for an opportunity to strike. Michôd simply watches him, waiting and building the tension so that when he finally does make his move, the impact is all the greater.
In the lead Frecheville delivers a performance that, at first, I wasn’t totally sold on. In the early scenes he simply seemed blank, but once the character gained a foothold in the action, I felt like his performance became more engaged and layered. It’s definitely not the strongest performance in the film, but in the end he does hold his own.
Animal Kingdom is a strong film, particularly for a debut. Michôd’s direction is confident and shows a lot of skill and the film practically demands multiple viewings because it is so well put together. It’s a definite must-see.