When gormless teen Joshua or ‘J’ Cody’s mum dies, he has little choice but to move in with the side of the family that she had previously shielded him from. It’s not a good time for him to do so. It probably never was. His uncle Andrew or ‘Pope’ is/was an armed robber, now trying to keep a low profile. With their house being watched by the cops, drug dealing and the stock market are becoming more tempting forms of employment for what’s left of the gang, and relations in the house are becoming increasingly fractious, barely kept together by ever loving ‘Grandma Smurf’ Janine. When the most level-headed member of the gang is removed from the picture, the more unstable relations are left in charge, led by Pope, who instigates an insane blood feud with the police force, a war that J inevitably becomes part of, becoming an accessory to dark deeds, and viewed by investigating officer Leckie (Guy Pearce) as the loose link of the Cody clan to use as a weapon against his newly adopted family…
David Michôd’s Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom is wholly credible right from the first shot, which sets up the film’s world perfectly, a blend of grim tragedy and the suburban mundane, with a trace of jet black humour. No one sports a sharp suit here. We are in a Melbourne of plywood and breezeblock, of bungalows and barbeques, and Michôd continuously avoids conventional genre scenes to emphasise odd moments of character business and domestic detail. The family chat and bicker about noise, the use of a blender in the morning, bathroom hygiene and proper drug etiquette. A SWAT team raid occurs without warning immediately after an awkward attempt at nephew/uncle bonding in front of the TV. A scene involving a middle-class dad getting his kids’ shoes on to go on a car trip becomes imbued with unbearable tension. Most of the business that would take place in, say, a Michael Mann epic is either ignored or played out against a backdrop of mantelpiece kitsch and ill-considered lawn furniture. Performances tend towards the naturalistic and low key. There are very few wide shots or chances to get a bigger perspective. And this grubby little world of banal terrors seems to close in on us as the intensity level rises, trust begins to wither, and there’s nowhere left to go.
Outside of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre, I can’t think of a more corrosive portrayal of family life, where ties of loyalty are tools of coercion. The Cody’s are a nest of paranoia and substance abuse. And Ben Mendelsohn’s uncle Pope is a quietly chilling creation, all the more so for his lack of physical muscle. He has a weaselly inability to meet anybody’s eye, or voice what’s on his mind, masking a truly depraved heart that his brothers are unwilling to confront or control. Mother dearest only goes so far as to suggest that he ought to start taking his pills again. Jacki Weaver is fantastic as the matriarch, all bleached blonde hair and lipstick, demanding kisses and cuddles from her sons, calling everyone ‘sweetie’, her true reptile nature only emerging when her boys are threatened, and is all the more disturbing for being logical and controlled. At least her sons are mentally unstable drug abusers, she knows exactly what she’s doing.
J (played by James Frecheville) asserts in a piece of voice-over early in the film that he accepts all of this craziness as normal, in the manner of most teenagers’ attitude to their families. His taciturn, dull-eyed demeanour rarely betrays what we suspect, that this isn’t true. Exactly how much J is a typical Cody is left ambiguous. He could be, as Leckie asserts, looking for a place to fit, but all options seem wanting. What’s normal, anyway? Different families and value systems are contrasted and brought into conflict throughout. The police are corrupt and murderous and the legal system is morally bankrupt. His girlfriend’s folks look like pretty decent people, but from Animal Kingdom‘s point of view they seem ignorant of the real world, until it comes crashing horribly into their lives. It’s left to Guy Pearce’s solid cop with a wife and family to provide the picture with an ethical magnetic North. Nothing else is on the level, life is messy and chaotic, and idiocy and miscommunication have as much impact on events as intentions and desires. As the plot twists and turns and characters reveal their true colours, Animal Kingdom shocks, surprises and amazes but never seems false or unreal. A great film.