For some, the title Animal Kingdom may conjure up thoughts of Mutual of Omaha, Marlin Perkins and Animal Planet, but this isn’t a traditional nature film. Rather, it’s a “human nature film,” a crime drama that observes cops and robbers in their natural habitat and studies their instinctual behaviors.
Animal Kingdom is chilling from its opening moments, in which seventeen-year-old Josh (called “J”) demonstrates that he’d rather watch “Deal or No Deal” than his dying mother being treated by paramedics for a heroin overdose. As embodied by impressively internal newcomer James Frechette, J is a worrying poster boy for modern teen disaffection. Disconnection is his natural state, so when he’s taken in by his “Grandma Smurf” (a finely tuned Jacki Weaver) and finds himself in the midst of a small-time crime family, the lad seems a bit unnerved but accepts no moral responsibility: “This is where I was and this is what I was doing…This was just the world I was thrown into.”
The situation starts out spring-loaded for trouble, with the Armed Robbery Squad already onto the bank-robbing family. Barely held together by their creepily affectionate mother are relatively reluctant Darren (Luke Ford) and his older brothers who seem to be three kinds of crazy: wild man Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), hair-trigger Barry (Joel Edgerton of The Square) and psychopathic Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), the latter only just emerging from a prison term. Like Ma Barker crossed with Lady Macbeth, Grandma Smurf uses any means necessary fiercely to protect her cubs.
Early on, J remarks at an automatic hair dryer, “I’m invisible. These things never see me,” but Animal Kingdom traces his journey of self-discovery. By the end, one way or another and like or it not, he will own his own presence in the world. Of course, there’s a battle for his soul: Grandma Smurf cajoles and commands family loyalty, while Guy Pearce’s canny cop makes his own play to convince J to do the right thing. The tipping point may come from J’s girlfriend (Laura Wheelwright), the one element in his life that allows him happiness. The rare occasions when this sullen teen feels something other than fear are positively devastating.
Animal Kingdom is the debut feature of Australian writer-director David Michôd, who undoubtedly will helm a big-budget Hollywood picture any minute now. Hollywood would get more out of the bargain, as Michôd’s talents are not limited to ease within genre filmmaking: rather, he shows intelligent restraint in his filmmaking, the principal reason he’s able to cultivate a number of genuinely surprising moments in his plot. His uses of deliberate pacing and otherworldly music contribute to Animal Kingdom’s hypnotic pull of sight and sound.
Michôd knows better than to coast on style, a la Guy Ritchie: Animal Kingdom is so disturbing precisely because it seems so credible. Credit there to the cast as well: Frechette, Weaver, and Mendelsohn, whose monstrous Pope rivals Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth for a place in our cinema-fueled nightmares.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]