The opening frames show a teenaged boy sitting on a sofa next to his slumping Mum, watching television – we assume she is sleeping. We assume wrong. She’s exceeded her expiration date – we know this because we see the paramedics arrive and administer to her while the lad stands by and splits his interest between his recently deceased mother and the game show on the telly.
What follows is one of the most foreboding and ominous title sequences I can recall. This story is going to end badly for its participants.
“Crooks always come undone. Always. One way or another,” says the teenaged boy ‘Joshua “J” Cody’ (James Frecheville) in his opening narration.
‘J’ gets taken in by his ‘Grandma Smurf’ (Oscar nominated Aussie treasure Jacki Weaver), who is the den mother to a gang of bank robbing offspring.
“Mum kept me away from her family because she was scared. I didn’t realize it at the time but they were all scared – even if they’d didn’t show it,” the narration continues as we meet ‘J’s’ new family.
Set in present day Melbourne, Australia, the “armed robbery business” is out of control and local law enforcement is fed up. An informant tells one of the gang “Armed robbery is about to be disbanded.” As if it was a local deli about to lose its license.
And then the coppers decide to hand out a little street justice and blast one of the Cody gang in broad daylight – so now it’s on!
This all makes for an outstanding, albeit bleak, launch into a well-structured story. Writer-Director David Michod knows what he is doing and the material soars under his control. His usage of slow motion imagery for transitions and action is extremely effective, shot with a straight forward and confident hand by Adam Arkapaw.
“You can’t play the joker whenever you want in a no trumps hand,” says ‘Grandma Smurf’ to young ‘J.’
It’s that kind of writing that elevates this dark and dangerous story to more than just another cautionary tale of “crime doesn’t pay.”
The incredibly versatile Guy Pearce turns up as ‘Detective Leckie,’ the lead investigator looking to put the ‘Cody’ family business into chapter 11. Pearce seems to have unusually good taste in material, showing up time and again in quality films (The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Memento, The Road, Factory Girl). And he is excellent yet again, as is all of the cast of Aussie unknowns.
The crime family’s most dangerous menace to society is called ‘Pope,’ played with chilling simplicity by Ben Mendelsohn. It’s one of those stoic, unnerving performances that sticks with you long afterwards.
So does the whole film.
Much like The Town, Animal Kingdom has a respect for its audience and allows itself the luxury of character examination without pandering.
Wallace Shawn’s ‘Vizzini’ lectured/joked in The Princess Bride (1987) that “Everyone knows Australia is entirely peopled with criminals.” But I don’t think everyone does know that Australia has a fascinatingly wicked and criminal history (read Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore) that can neither be ignored nor celebrated.
“Everything has its place in the scheme of things. Everything reaches an understanding,” ‘Detective Leckie’ tells ‘J’ as the house of criminal cards begins to crumble. Violently.
“I just wanted to make a big, bad Melbourne crime story,” says director Michod.
He hit his mark and then some.
This film might make some too nervous. But unlike Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Paul Thomas Anderson’s uniquely creepy and cryptic psychological drama, Animal Kingdom doesn’t attempt closure as much as order.
Afterall, you can’t play a joker whenever you want.