Head of crime family Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody (Jacki Weaver) rules her boys with a superficial over-caring near incestuous love that disturbs instantly, an early indication of her order in the pack that is The Cody family.
Her three sons all run and execute the family business, shown in an early photographic monologue of perpetrated bank robberies; Darren, Craig and Andrew are a rough crew of feral thieves and drug peddlers. They’re the strong protecting the weak in the clan – Cousin Josh (James Frecheville), now orphaned after his mother overdoses, taken under the wing of the nurturing syndicate.
When an early execution at the hands of vigilantly Melbourne cops dispenses with a key figure, the Cody family loses all control, their end game begins and Animal Kingdom makes clear its animalistic intentions.
Josh is central and our window to the Cody realm, his vacant eyed turn in the most part conveys the required anguish of a lost teen soul, but making a connection is difficult. Seemingly discontent with a reliance on a family of crooks, but too weak and too young to know any different, his abandon is not without purpose, either locking away his grief or naturally hardened to it, J’s evolution and teachings within the family are the core sentiment; his detachment is either a product of sadistic nurture or an inherent callous nature; His dispassion within the opening scene perhaps indicates J’s coping instincts behind outward apathy.
Kingdom’s survival of the fittest overtures seem like an over-reaching attempt to parallel with grander themes, charting J’s progression along with Guy Pearce’s central scene that positions Darwinian evolution theories and J’s perceived natural order in the untamed tribe. Tagging such analogous themes to an epic crime tale seems ambitious until a stunning finale highlights the relevance of the statements made.
Pearce’s central investigator too takes J into the protection of his department seemingly the last honourable crew within the equally criminal Melbourne Police, as leverage to gain vital information of the Cody families operation. Whether he turns snitch or finds some seated family loyalty is a key plot device on which J’s future and Kingdom’s lofty principle hinges.
Weaver’s disquieting alpha female is stunning; the affectionate mother in wolf’s clothing, an omnipresent threat behind a fostering front that contradicts truer survival instincts.
Most disturbing though is ‘Pope’ Uncle Andrew, the marked man for Melbourne’s armed cowboys; an unforgettably creepy and intimidating performance from the exceptional Ben Mendelsohn, a crime family villain for the ages whose indecent intentions disturb as equally as his awkward interactions and simmering menace.
First time feature Writer/Director David Michôd serves up a masterwork that belies what is a relatively meagre budget, edited superbly with equal shows of grit emphasising realism over sensationalism and highly technical tonal slow motions that indicate a true talent. Brutal executions are delivered without gloss that pack an even greater punch. Stylistic changes are exceptional along with confident plotting that compels throughout, a build that often eludes grander crime tales.
Any complaint of derivation from elsewhere is grossly unfair (“The Aussie Goodfellas”), perhaps lacking Scorsese’s flamboyance, it’s entirely unglamorous and worlds apart in what is a far more intimate affair.
Its grander commentary on the animalistic order of things seems striving, yes, but when giving post-credit consideration to compelling themes of nature over nurture and the central monologue “not everything survives because it’s strong” Kindgom’s finality disturbs the more.
With supreme direction making for a primitive family crime tale with superlative acting and characters, most memorably from Weaver and Mendelsohn, Animal Kingdom represents the very best in Australian cinema; a supreme piece of film-making.