The Australian gangster movie “Animal Kingdom” is a brooding, intimate, clear-eyed look at the precipitous downfall of a family in the Melbourne underworld. This crime film is not jokey like a Quentin Tarantino film, nor an epic romance like a Francis Ford Coppola film. Instead writer-director David Michod opts for a naturalistic drama rich in psychology and attention to details. There’s no glamour here, but one false move by anyone can result in death, so tension fills nearly every scene. The family business is nasty and wet — wet as in blood.
The film was clearly an audience favorite at Sundance, and positive critical reaction could bode well for international as well as domestic theatrical play. It certainly marks an auspicious directing debut by Michod, who exhibits great confidence as he lets this densely layered crime story unfold in measured but by no means slow rhythms.
Michod brings the viewer into a tacky suburban dwelling where the Cody clan and their friends live and plot their schemes. Seldom has a gangster film shown how utterly mundane evil can be. But the family itself is terrifying: If psychosis is hereditary, the Codys are Exhibit 1.
The film’s entry point is young Joshua Cody (newcomer James Frecheville), whom everyone calls “J.” His mother wisely kept him away from her murderous family, but when she ODs on heroin, he has little choice but to be taken in by his grandmother Smurf Cody (Jacki Weaver in a riveting performance).
Family head, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), is in hiding as several rogue cops want him dead. His partner, Baz (Joel Edgerton), would like to lie low permanently, putting his ill-gotten gains into the stock market and steering clear of crime. But Smurf still maintains charge of her family’s business, watching over her boys and giving each lingering kisses full on the mouth.
Working in the drug trade are the unstable and speed-addicted Craig Cody (Sullivan Stapleton), nearly always shirtless to display a tapestry of chest tattoos, and younger brother Darren (Luke Ford), largely ineffectual and lost but still thinking he’s a player.
J can’t help getting involved in things, at first oblivious to the danger to which he is subjecting not only himself but also his new girlfriend, Nicky (Laura Wheelright). This is especially true when a foolish revenge slaying of two police officers brings intense heat down on the family.
Arrests are made, and detective Leckie (Guy Pearce) makes a point to keep J longer than other family members, thereby raising suspicions that he might have talked more than he should. Those suspicions become the deadly seeds the senior cop intended. It isn’t long before J is more fearful of family members than the police.
The 17-year-old makes a most interesting dramatic device for observing this family. One sees things through his eyes, how people only gradually show their true colors and how trust can be lost in an instant. The Cody boys intend to be alpha dogs in the animal kingdom. When a punk mistakenly picks a road-rage fight with Craig, he hands his nephew a gun and says, “Let ’em know who’s king.”
The boy picks up the gun in that instance, but doubts creep in about his family. It isn’t just that Pope thinks J needs to jettison the girlfriend — women talk too much — it has more to do with how easily he can be distrusted and how trigger-happy family members are.
The lanky Frecheville is a brilliant casting choice. He plays J as quietly watchful and then wary. He is a man-child who will have to develop rapidly if he is to survive.