Like the first lines of Albert Camus’s The Stranger (“Mother died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”), the opening scene of Animal Kingdom is a study in filial affectlessness. While police remove the corpse of his mother, dead from a cocaine overdose, 17-year-old Josh “J” Cody (Frecheville) gazes impassively at a TV game show. Left suddenly alone in their dumpy apartment in Melbourne, J calls his grandmother. “Now I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” he tells her. It has been many years since Janine Cody (Weaver), known respectfully as “Smurf,” has seen her daughter or her daughter’s son, but she is inordinately fond of her own three grown sons, Pope, Craig, and Darren. And she immediately gathers J up into their ménage, a nest of suburban sociopathy. J’s uncles are bank robbers, drug dealers, and murderers, hardly fit models for an insecure young man coming of age. Though she seems a bundle of affection, forever hugging and kissing her boys, Grandma Smurf is a cunning and ruthless criminal.
Through lingering close-ups and portentous music, Animal Kingdom, the debut feature of Australian director David Michôd, aims for the tragic majesty of The Godfather. If it falls a tad short, blame it on the psychotic siblings, who lack sufficient depth and grandeur. Early in the film, after learning rogue cops executed their best friend, the Codys’ emotional palette is reduced to raw, unremitting fear. Knowing that they are being targeted for arrest or elimination brings out the worst in a bunch of thugs who are already bad enough.
The story focuses on J, and the challenge met by James Frecheville, who plays him, is to keep an uncommunicative and withdrawn character from becoming a cinematic cipher. Frecheville’s subtle performance conveys the predicament of an adolescent drawn into the Cody code of felony even while despising it and being pulled among Pope, Craig, Darren, Smurf, and his own desires. The film begins with J’s voiceover, a clumsy and misleading device; even many years after the film’s shocking conclusion, J does not seem capable of the mature insight that: “Crooks always come undone, one way or another.”
A resolute detective named Nathan Leckie (Pearce) ingratiates himself with J as a way of getting at his uncles. For the confused orphan, Leckie is an alternative father, and the kid finds himself the hapless prey of good cops, bad cops, and his own vindictive kin. Trying to convince J to deliver evidence against his uncles, Leckie gives a Darwinian speech about survival in the wild. His observations about how creatures adapt to a harsh environment explain the title Animal Kingdom. Yet it is a slur on lions, engraved in sculptures seen beneath the opening credits, as well as the indigenous dingoes, emus, and kangaroos of the Australian outback to suggest that they are as malicious and brutal as the Homo sapiens on display in this film. Despite its innocent title, suggesting an offering on the National Geographic channel, Animal Kingdom, based on actual events, is a chilling reminder that the self-proclaimed monarch of terrestrial life is a beast. •
Writ. & dir. David Michôd; feat. James Frecheville, Ben Mendelsohn, Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver (R)