Film Review: Animal KingdomGripping Australian crime drama that charts the slow unraveling of a family bound together by violence through the eyes of a teenage nephew unexpectedly thrust into their midst.
Seventeen-year-old Joshua “J” Cody (James Frecheville) lives with his single mother, who’s estranged from her shady family and did her best to keep her son out of their reach. But when she dies of an overdose, the only person he can think of to call his grandmother, Janine (Jacki Weaver), known to everyone as “Smurf.” And she’s the answer to a suddenly unmoored boy’s prayers: Calm, comforting and decisive, she gently but firmly tells J to pack his things and come live with her and her boys. Everything will work out, she promises.
As J quickly learns, Smurf’s blandly suburban ranch house is the only ordinary thing about her household, where life revolves around her three grown sons. They’re three-quarters of an armed robbery crew so notorious that an unmarked police car has been parked across the street for weeks and her eldest, ringleader Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), has been forced to leave the nest and hide out until the heat dies down. Heavily tattooed middle son Darren (Sullivan Stapleton) is the high-strung one; he deals drug on the side and is intimately familiar with his product, while Smurf’s youngest, the malleable Craig (Luke Ford), is drifting inexorably into the family business. The crew’s fourth member, Baz Brown (Joel Edgerton), is the steadiest of the lot: Happily married and a father, Baz is sufficiently clear-eyed to realize that they’re getting older and the cops are getting more ruthless and it’s a good time to ease out of the thug life.
So naturally it’s Baz who’s murdered by overzealous police officers as he sits in his car in a supermarket parking lot. J’s efforts to keep out of the ensuing firestorm are futile: At an age when most boys are worrying about juggling girlfriends, schoolwork and having a bit of fun, he’s trapped between persistent police detective Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce), who hopes J will turn state’s evidence, and the volatile, ruthless relatives he knows would happily sacrifice him to save their own skins.
Set in the 1980s, screenwriter David Michod’s directing debut is stunning—it’s as though he managed to shrink The Godfather to nuclear-family dimensions without losing any of its epic intensity. The casting is flawless, from first-timer Frecheville to experienced character actor Mendelsohn, but the film’s dark, discomfiting heart is Jacki Weaver’s grandma Smurf, whose impeccable make-up, sequined, sorbet-colored tops and warm embrace belie a predatory resolve so steely that sharks could take lessons. Her performance alone would make Animal Kingdom worth seeing, and the fact that it’s set in a film that never makes a false step is nothing short of astonishing.