In the opening scene of Animal Kingdom, young cub Joshua "J" Cody (James Frecheville) finds himself reluctantly thrust into the wild after his mother overdoses on heroin. It's the first in a series of tragedies, yet it barely seems to register with J, whose attention remains focused on a television game show while emergency workers quiz him for information. It's as if "mother dying from heroin overdose" had been on his life's to-do list from day one, and now the time had come to simply check off that particular event. Though we can't be sure, given where the film starts, this also seems like the moment when J's detachment finally sets in, and he resigns himself to the fate he always knew was coming.
Animal Kingdom feels remarkably assured considering it's the feature directorial debut of emerging actor, writer, and director David Michôd; the tone is unflinchingly and consistently fatalistic, the performances are top-notch, and the screenplay makes the absolute most out of every opportunity for tension as J struggles to reconcile his loyalties with his new family and the kindhearted detective who displays an acute understanding of his dilemma. Not surprisingly, a quick glance at Michôd's film credits reveals that he honed his talents both behind and in front of the camera with Blue-Tongue Films at a crucial moment in the studio's history. And his hard work has most certainly paid off -- along with Blue-Tongue Films' 2008 thriller The Square, Animal Kingdom is likely to be remembered as not only one of the best films of the year, but also one that helped to establish the indie studio as a true power player in the international film scene.
Upon discovering his mother's lifeless body slumped in front of the television, young J phones his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver) and begins the arduous process of integrating into his extended, estranged family -- a motley collection of criminals consisting of paranoid drug dealer Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), easygoing Barry (Joel Edgerton), nervous Darren (Luke Ford), and dangerous sociopath Andrew (Ben Mendelsohn), better known to the family as "Pope." Arriving at his new home, it's obvious to J that his family has just pulled off a job that didn't go quite as planned. The police are looking for Pope, and when another member of the clan is killed by crooked cops, their once-powerful empire quickly begins to topple. Later, as Pope starts to become suspicious that J is revealing incriminating details about the family's illegal endeavors to his longtime girlfriend, Nicky (Laura Wheelwright), a pair of police officers are killed and honest Detective Senior Sergeant Leckie (Guy Pearce) turns up the heat on J to provide the testimony that will convict Darren and Pope of the crime. Stoic and stony-faced as he weighs his options, J starts feeling pressure from both sides as the court case draws near, and his loyalties become torn.
A near pitch-perfect hybrid of crime drama and family drama, Animal Kingdom quickly establishes the hierarchy of power within the Cody family, and allows us to witness what happens when the chain of command within the household is suddenly shattered. A quiet observer, J states early on that "kids just are wherever they are, and they do whatever they're doing." Though his detachment seems solidified by his mother's death early on, we get the impression that the process has been ongoing since he was a young child. In his first feature role, James Frecheville resides expressionless at the center of a brewing storm. He may not have the flashiest role in the film, yet as the eyes and ears of the audience, he perhaps has the most important one, and he handles that responsibility with reserved skill, carefully absorbing the events going on around him, and narrating them as if he were nervously whispering the details to a friend.
On the opposite end of the spectrum dwell Mendelsohn, Edgerton, Pearce, and Weaver, each of whom play their respective roles with conviction and charisma. Mendelsohn instills Pope with a sense of dangerous unpredictability that becomes evident during one particularly effective reveal approximately 30 minutes into the film. At that moment, we realize what Pope is truly capable of, and spend the rest of the film hoping that he won't have the opportunity to act on the malevolent instincts racing through his mind. It's a masterful tension builder, and acted to eerie perfection by Mendelsohn. As the cop seeking to bust the Codys, Pearce represents everything lawful and honest, exuding a sense of warmth that's otherwise absent in the film as he gently pushes J to make the right choices. Edgerton gives the early scenes a sense of levity that heightens the impact of the tragedies which are soon to follow, and Weaver is nothing short of chilling as the doting and manipulative matriarch whose pitch-black dark side is dragged further into the light as she grows increasingly desperate to keep her family together.
As a screenwriter, Michôd populates his intimate epic with the kind of complex and frightening characters that we feel compelled to watch despite our moral objections to their actions. But this isn't an emotional tale, and by reflecting J's cool detachment in the screenplay, Michôd fuels Animal Kingdom with a cruel efficiency while employing his restless lens to create a sense of impending urgency that becomes nearly unbearable as we wait to see where J's loyalties will fall.
Despite all of the family drama, however, the real strength in Michôd's feature debut is the way in which it subtly conveys the notion that the titular kingdom extends far beyond the Cody household. The more we learn about their world, the stronger the parallels to nature become. A playful fight between two of the Cody brothers brings the metaphor to life onscreen like a National Geographic special focusing on a family of criminals, and the crimes committed by crooked cops as the situation spirals out of control offer proof that the laws of the jungle apply to the concrete world as well. In the words of Pope, "It's a crazy f*ckin' world," and Michôd does a commendable job of bringing that crazy world to life in a way that's genuinely involving, despite the fact that it keeps us at an emotional distance.
Between The Square and Animal Kingdom, Blue-Tongue Films has quickly established itself as an indie studio capable of competing on a global scale. Watching their films, we get the feeling that we're witnessing the beginning of something big; as movie lovers, that kind of genuine buzz trumps any amount of manufactured hype.