By Phil Guy
For his debut feature, Australian director David Michôd presents a suburban underworld of organised crime based in his native Melbourne. Animal Kingdom documents the decline of the Cody family: a tight-knit criminal outfit of drug-dealers, murderers and all-round psychopaths who face their final days of operation, as increasingly intolerant police squads and rogue detectives close in.
The film follows J (James Frecheville) who joins the ranks of the Cody family after his mother – estranged sister of the Cody’s elderly matriarch, Janine – dies from a heroin overdose. Already numbed and desensitised by the depravity of his mother’s household, J is inducted into the family and so joins the family’s gradual unravelling. Scenes largely take place behind the closed doors of the Cody’s suburban hideout, where interior politics, paranoia and increasingly strained psyches take precedence over explicit criminality. As the family thugs drop one by one, J finds himself torn between loyalty to the family and to his own moral judgement: his mind wavers with the influence of the compassionate Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce) and it is this personal conflict that pushes Animal Kingdom through to its breathless conclusion.
The film’s premise might suggest that Animal Kingdom can slot neatly into the gangster genre to sit alongside the likes of Goodfellas, Heat and The Departed. Despite taking cues from such films, however, Animal Kingdom is singular: Michôd toys with steadfast traditions of the genre to formulate a survival story that bristles with menace, and does so without relying on explicit violence. Those few scenes that do result in physical aggression do so quickly, unexpectedly and quite shockingly before submerging back into the film’s ferociously tense and disquieting atmosphere.
Throughout, Michôd plays with allusions to Darwinian law and the survival of the fittest. He makes comparisons – very literally sometimes, as in the opening credits – between the Cody family and a pack of lions; Melbourne is their plain and their suburban home is their den. Like animals in the natural world, the Cody’s abide by no moral codes or notions of law and order. They are savage and unhinged, but they are also a dying breed: “Crooks always come undone, always, one way or another,’ J narrates, but even so, the Codys fight the threat of extinction with claws out and teeth bared. Even Janine (Jacki Weaver) – who gives the impression of a bright-eyed, bleached blond suburban grandma – can barely conceal the unwavering lust for survival that the Cody’s all share. Weaver’s performance is spectacularly unnerving: her unchanging grin, cheery disposition and doting kisses for her boys provide some of the most uncomfortable moments of the film before her character’s increasingly sinister manipulations eventually give her true nature away.
For the film’s DVD release, Michôd offers a director’s commentary along with a Q&A with cast members, a short making-of featurette and a theatrical trailer. It is relatively light on special content, but there are some points of interests for those wishing to spend a little more time with the film. The documentary is relatively standard-fare, but Michôd’s commentary is worthwhile as a first effort: it reveals some stories from the set and discusses the construction of various scenes and character motivations, supported by the interview sections with James Frecheville, Producer Liz Watts, and Jacki Weaver.
Despite coming from nowhere, Animal Kingdom feels like one of this year’s early cinematic highlights. With immaculate performances all around – especially from newcomer Frecheville as the deeply confused and unsettled youngster, J – and a brooding, stylishly thematic script, Animal Kingdom sets in place a huge level of expectation for Australia’s most promising new director. It’s an authentic, nerve-testing depiction of modern crime and an effective reflection on the struggles of growing up around violence.
Animal Kingdom is out on DVD and Bluray on the 11th of July 2011.