Animal Kingdom is a powerfully sedate film, a crime story concentrated on characters in closed in spaces and corralled by a family order, ruled by a matriarch with a mastery of intimation. While Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody (Jackie Weaver) is the center of this film and her three sons very close by, the story is about the inculcation of her grandson, ‘J’ or Josh (James Frecheville) with the ways of the family order and the criminal code of ethics. Josh is indifferent, somber even though we are not quite sure if it is the death of his mother or a matter of being more interested in girls and school than the family he has not seen in years. That is where the story catapults us, into the gray between everyday normal behaviors and not, the kind of circumstances that force Josh back into the embraces of his estranged family and the precise brutality of his grandmother.
“Tell me if you agree with this, this boy who is being looked after, he knows who you are?” Janine Cody ask a police officer who has been dealing under the table with the Cody family and is caught between loyalty to the job and coerced loyalty to Janine. She doesn’t have to say what she means because it’s there just beneath the surface like a fish-hook waiting to snag flesh, waiting to drag you under to places more comfortable to her than they ever will be to you. This kind of power is resolute; it is revered by anyone who has ever been on the other side of things with her. Jacki Weaver exudes the stuff and everyone in the vicinity knows it.
The characters in this Australian crime family drama are sharp-edged as though carved from spotless steel and polished to a luster to dispel the lineage of malevolence just below the surface. The film takes place in the not so distant past informed as much as defined by an uneasy, quiet sense of ease established from the onset as Josh puts himself in the care of his grandmother after his mother overdoses on drugs. Within moments the story is sketched out, the principle characters defined in the most rudimentary way like conversations at a party that reveal over time the habitual malcontents and those eager for some action in the crowd. In this case, the action is a show of teams, the good people and the bad people only in this film there is no middle ground as members of either side frequently show the best and worst you can imagine between cops and robbers. What is not clear is just how the audience is supposed to respond to all this – take sides or sit back and wait to see what happens? If Animal Kingdom has a flaw it is that the world of this story operates on a kind of insiders code of conduct, of actions and reactions that have a history we are never quite privy too. If we did not know any better, it would be easy to assume that only the good are killed straight away and those left belong to a motley crew of scavengers raking over gnarly bones long absent of anything the least bit nourishing.
Animal Kingdom was written and directed by David Michôd, and stars Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton, Jacki Weaverand James Frecheville. The film is scantily informed by the real life criminal activities of the Pettingill family and their violent confrontation in Melbourne with the Walsh Street police in 1988. What transpires over a series of days is terse aggression and the culmination of warring factions of the law and members of a family rooted in bad behavior, blurring the line between impropriety and justice as easily as going for a walk or investing in the stock market. The film premiered at the 26th Sundance Film Festival in 2010 and won the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema, Dramatic. It has won additional awards including 33 nominations with Jacki Weaver receiving multiple wins for her performance as well as serious attention with her Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
It is apparent that ‘Smurf’ Cody has a firm but eroding grip on the family, always in the room as it were, often silent but commanding. She puts the preservation of the family above all else. Smurf’s three sons make up the force of the family with her eldest, Andrew ‘Pope’ Cody on the lam hiding from a group of renegade detectives that have their sites on him by any means necessary – even when those means go beyond the limits of the law. The ensuing series of events play out in a steady, increasingly violent series of exchanges between the police and the family with ‘J’ forced from adolescence, made a man and a criminal all at once.
The thing is, this film is deceptively layered and intentionally claustrophobic, relying on a careful examination of minutiae. What gives the film such resonance is reserve, and like normal family dramas, the action comes in ragged explosions of breath, belabored and tactile. Michôd avoids stylized violence popularized elsewhere, choosing instead to keep things firmly on the ground where the characters act and react in the most believable ways. Even the police are distilled over time and consequences, lead by Guy Pearce who slips into the shoes of an aged, middle class Australian police detective as any previous role we have seen from him.