A superb character study of a Melbourne outlaw family and the teenage son who seeks a way out, first-time director David Michôd's riveting thriller Animal Kingdom examines the personal consequences and impact of crime through opposing viewpoints on either side of the law. One belongs to confused, anguished Joshua Cody, aka J (James Frecheville), who at 17 finds himself simultaneously dealing with his mother's loss and the discovery that his gun-toting, drug-dealing relatives want to teach him the family trade. The other is Leckie (Guy Pearce), a rare honest face within the corrupt local police force, who's anxious to take down the Cody brothers and eliminate the subsidiary network they've established within his department.
Leckie becomes J's champion, trying to help him escape what seems like his destiny. But that means eluding the watchful crazy-eye of J's older brother Pope (brilliantly played by Ben Mendelsohn), a crafty psycho who kills in cold blood and values loyalty above all else. Already furious that his best friend (Joel Edgerton) wants out of the life, Pope is angrier still that his own blood would shrug off the robbing and killing that makes up the family business. Of no help is the wily and creepy matriarch, known as Grandma Smurf (Jacki Weaver), who controls her sons and crew through a weird blend of charm, implied incestuous pull, and musings about the importance of family ties.
Though Animal Kingdom's setting has a retro ’80s feel, the time could easily be the present in any major urban center's neglected inner city. Guns are rife, life has no value, and citizens caught in the crossfire can expect no help from the police. Rather than construct an elaborate plot and spend the film's 112 minutes laying it out, writer-director Michôd keeps the crimes simple and the amount of sleuthing and detection almost nonexistent. Instead, the drama revolves around J's continual struggle for self-determination as the family falls apart, while Leckie battles the Codys for control of the department and J's soul.
Michôd never tips his hand regarding the plot, keeping the audience just as uncertain as his characters how things will unfold. That restraint proves devastating as the betrayals and bodies mount. A blazing entry in a burgeoning subgenre of Australian neo-noirs (including the Edgerton-written The Square), Animal Kingdom debunks the glamour and stylized violence of most American gangster films. In Michôd's grimy vision, crime not only doesn't pay, it dehumanizes those who commit it and destroys those who can't avoid it.
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