Australia has been on fire lately. With films like “The Square,” “The Disappearance of Alice Creed,” and now “Animal Kingdom,” the land down under has proven it knows how to make a crime thriller as good as (or better than) anywhere. That said, writer-director David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom” is more of a brooding crime drama than a straight-up thriller. It tells the story of a criminal family and slowly boils over exactly when we need it to.
The film follows the dark path of Josh Cody (James Frecheville), a smart, antisocial teenager whose mother has protected and distanced him from his poisonous extended family. After she dies of an overdose, he moves in with his grandma and uncles, none of whom he has seen in years. They make a living doing armed robberies, but strangely enough there are no heists in the film. When we meet them, we get the sense that the fun times are already over, and we’re only here to witness the downfall.
We get thrown along with Cody into a criminal enterprise that is well into its dark days and nearing its end. The cops are closing in on them, and the uncles are just struggling to figure out how to stay out of jail and survive. There is bad blood between them and the police, the exact details of which are never revealed. (I think there is a good prequel to be made there.) We know that the cops are frustrated with the family, and since they can’t make a strong case against them, they are considering going outside the law to settle their differences. Josh Cody gets forced into making a choice between siding with the cops or maintaining loyalty to his recently reunited family.
The film defies genre conventions while still managing to somehow hit every beat. It threw me off because it didn’t do what I expected when I expected it. I never knew exactly where it was going, and there were moments (especially near the end) where I feared it would leave me unsatisfied. There isn’t much in the way of chases, shoot-outs, twists, or double-crossing. The stakes aren’t always being raised as the vice tightens, at least not on the surface. The pacing is looser than in most great, tightly-scripted examples of the genre. Here, we don’t realize how dire situations have become until the characters do.
Ultimately, though, the genre is about suspense more than action, and when Michod turns it on, he delivers. There is a scene with a car backing up out of a driveway where each ticking second feels like an eternity. It is masterful.
Along with suspense, the genre is also mainly about exposing the dark side of human nature. That crucial element is brought to life by a capable cast full of characters who are often creepy and terrifying. Ben Mendehlson is particularly menacing as Andrew ‘Pope’ Cody, the most-sinister uncle who will stop at nothing to protect his freedom. He is a paranoid criminal who stomps out threats, both real and imagined. Jackie Weaver was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar for her role as Janine Cody, the cunning matriarch who is perhaps the most evil of the bunch, a nod that was certainly well deserved.
Frecheville is stoic for most of the running time, turning his character into a bit of an enigma, but as the credits roll, it becomes clear it was an intentional, integral part of the main character. We have to figure out what’s going on in his head, and what he’s capable of doing. Frecheville manages to convey that he’s smarter and more complicated than he lets on, and when he is asked to show emotion, it is convincing.
Guy Pearce plays a relatively small role as a detective sporting a sweet mustache. He is the biggest name in the cast, and he’s also good, but it’s a testament to the strength of the performances that he is almost an afterthought.
The music is also noteworthy. It is filled with a sense of foreboding and sometimes feels like it’s straight out of a horror movie. There is one scene where the music alone set me on edge. Nothing was happening, but I was sure something terrible would happen soon.
Crime dramas are my favorite genre, and I like to consider myself a bit of an expert at this point, but “Animal Kingdom” is original and found new ways to surprise and challenge me. It is a naturalistic story that ponders and respects survival of the fittest. It is a dark family drama filled growing suspense, periodically punctuated by brain splatter.
5 out of 5 stars