There is little honor among thieves—or police, for that matter—in the aptly named Animal Kingdom.
Audiences have long been primed to expect a contrasting balance of loyalty and pitiless expediency when it comes to portrayals of felonious families, whether the Corleones or the Sopranos. The Australian David Michôd's feature debut and World Cinema grand prize winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival presents a milieu in which the cruelest survive and loyalty is a fungible commodity.
The lack of moral equilibrium hits you from the opening scene, in which 17-year-old J (James Frecheville) impassively watches a game show as paramedics attempt to revive his smack-addict mother. A virtual cipher, J is taken in by the rest of the Cody clan, an extended family led by the affectionately named Grandma Smurf (Jacki Weaver) and J's three uncles, Darren (Luke Ford), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Barry (Joel Edgerton), to whom we're introduced during the opening credits via haunting black-and-white surveillance camera stills.
The screenplay is loosely inspired by the real events surrounding the Walsh Street police shootings that took place in Melbourne in 1988. Duplicitous cops, some of whom are more interested in summary retribution than evidence gathering, are hot on the Codys' trail, particularly after eldest brother and ringleader Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) resurfaces. The police's Star Chamber tactics prompt a violent reprisal in the form of ambushing and gunning down two young police officers.
One honest investigator, Leckie (Guy Pearce), zeroes in on J as the family's weakest link and his best chance at turning state's evidence. What follows is a sometimes subtle, often brutal battle for J's allegiance between Leckie, insane Pope and a grandmother not afraid to flash her wizened talons when necessary.
A sociopathological vibe permeates Animal Kingdom, and the threat of violence, which dictates every twist and turn, feels not so much shocking as eerily inevitable. Degrees of depravity are the only way to assign relative villainy to these characters, and there are no heroes—only those who don't deserve to die as much as others. In this regard, Animal Kingdom reminded me of another Australian genre retooling, John Hillcoat's neo-Western The Proposition.
Michôd's minimalist staging ratchets up the tension—a dead girl's ringing cell phone evokes more dread than her actual murder. A game cast, especially Frecheville and Mendelsohn, completes this crime family portrait that jumps past any glorification of their misadventures and instead wallows in their deconstruction. It's Goodfellas without the wiseguy farce. And, while J's character arc may loosely parallel that of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, the moral to Animal Kingdom is not "blood is thicker than water." Instead, J learns a different Corleone directive: Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.