After the accidental death of his heroin-addicted mother, 17 year-old 'J' (Frecheville) goes to live with his grandmother, 'Smurf' Cody (Weaver), and her criminal sons, Craig (Stapleton) and Darren (Ford). The sudden arrival of their fugitive older brother, Pope (Mendelsohn), gets the attention of the local cops, kick-starting a turf war that sees J forced to fight for his survival.
At the turn of the 21st century, gangster movies were a dime a dozen. Serious or comic, the blueprint was likely to be one of two things: the brutal, street-philosophical realism of GoodFellas or the tongue-in-cheek, Jack-the-lad capering of Lock, Stock. With so little to work with, it’s not surprising that screenwriters — and audiences — grew weary. Which is why the genre seemed to burn out; while its key elements migrated to films as diverse as The Dark Knight, Eastern Promises, No Country For Old Men and Kick-Ass, the pure, true gangster movie seemed to have run its course.
Recently, however, there’s been something of a revival. Though it’s rough around the edges, 2009’s Down Terrace, directed by Ben Wheatley, made the bold return not just to the gangster movie but to the British gangster movie, the most derided variant of them all. Surprisingly, though, it worked. Down Terrace went inside the gangster’s world — mind, even — to see at first hand how the cogs turned. And while Wheatley was making this film in the UK, David Michôd was doing much the same thing down in Australia. Though it is much slicker, better played and vastly more sombre — its only real failing — Animal Kingdom offers yet another way through the GoodFellas/Lock, Stock impasse by focusing on emotional violence rather than blood and guts or, worse yet, slapstick.
Based on the true-life case of the Melbourne-based Pettingill family, who were involved in the murders of two local policemen in 1988, Animal Kingdom bears more resemblance to recent Italian family drama I Am Love than, say, Sexy Beast. Even the title reflects this; though it is indeed concerned with the criminal jungle, Michôd’s film is very much about the survival of the species. It’s about animals that hunt and those that fall prey — which is what precipitates the central conflict in more than one way — and very much about territorial behaviour. But more than anything it is about origins: how animals are reared, how they evolve and who really leads the pack.
For some viewers, this may be too much of a slow burn. With the exception of Air Supply’s now rather creepy All Out Of Love, there aren’t too many pop-culture touchstones, and the framing, though up-close and intimate at times, is always somewhat detached — appropriately enough, like wildlife footage. And without giving too much away, some very entertaining characters don’t get as much screen time as the opening premise suggests, leaving the film to rest rather squarely on the shoulders of newcomer James Frecheville. And Frecheville’s ‘J’ is not an easy character to warm to; stocky, closed-off, impassive, his demeanour almost passes for wooden until he realises the extent of his family’s amorality, how far they are willing to go, and how he has as much to fear from them as he has the cops.
For a while, J thinks his biggest threat is Pope, and Ben Mendelsohn is extraordinary as this suburban outlaw. Think Al Pacino’s character in Donnie Brasco but younger and crazier. Pope is not normal but behaves as if he is, almost unaware of the stiffened-back tension he prompts in others, choosing not to see the fear in their eyes. He’s relaxed around drugs, even though they kill his sister, and even more so around killing. Pope is the lion king in his neck of the woods, and, without a father figure, J feels pressure from Smurf (Jacki Weaver) to measure up to this most sinister of role models.
Smurf, though, is the real revelation here, and anyone lured into the cinema by Weaver’s spate of recent award nominations might wonder for quite some time if this is another of those Dame Judi things, where a little goes a long way. Those people should stick with it; though Animal Kingdom deals with an awful lot of testosterone, it has in Smurf its very own Lady Macbeth, a woman whose motherly love may well be selfless but is finite and definitely not available to everyone, as J learns to his cost. This is Michôd’s body-blow and he saves it for the final round. Again, it would be a spoiler to say which way things go; suffice to say, Animal Kingdom is that rarity: a gangster movie that — imagine this — makes you wish there were more of them.
A dark rites-of-passage story meets lethal Shakespearean drama, with low-key performances that artfully get under the skin.