ll teenagers go through a period of trying to find themselves and figure out their place in the larger world. But most of them don't have to launch their search from the depths of a family of career criminals, like the young protagonist in the bleak, yet forceful Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom. Tossed without ceremony into a metaphorical pit of vipers, this 17-year-old boy has more than the usual obstacles to contend with, maneuvering constantly toward survival while the adults around him teach him the law of the jungle.
Written and directed by David Michod, the film is loosely inspired by a series of real-life crimes and consequences that rocked the city of Melbourne in 1988 and 1989. An execution-style ambush and murder of a pair of young policemen was believed to be in retribution for previous police shootings of members of an elusive gang of armed bank robbers. Michod's film depicts a sinister situation in which the increasingly reckless police in the Armed Robbery Squad (rife with corruption within its own ranks) and a loosely allied gang of violent criminals wage barely contained tribal warfare just beneath the city's surface calm.
Into this tense milieu strays 17-year-old Josh "J" Cody (James Frecheville, in an impressive film debut). After his single mom dies of a heroin overdose, J doesn't know what he's in for when he calls the grandmother he hasn't seen in years to ask what he ought to do next. Granny turns out to be Janine Cody (Jacki Weaver), a hard-boiled, mini-skirted bottle blonde who comes to collect the boy and insert him into her household of lowlife gangster sons.
J's Uncle Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is a hair-trigger, tattooed cokehead who deals drugs (chiefly through a crooked cop in the drug enforcement squad). Uncle Darren (Luke Ford), just a couple of years older than J, does whatever his big brothers tell him to. Baz (Joel Edgerton, last seen in The Square), a Cody family ally, is thinking of leaving crime for the stock market; robbery is "getting too hard," and he disdains the "grubby business" of drug-dealing. Most disturbing of all is J's "Uncle Pope" (Ben Mendelsohn), passive-aggressive sociopath and mastermind of the family crime spree who manipulates the others with cold, reptilian finesse. (With his slight build and unremarkable features, Mendelsohn's Pope is a poster boy for the banality of evil.)
J re-enters the family unit that his mother (the brothers' only sister) kept at bay and out of his life for years. A silent, stoic presence among them, the youth passes no value judgments (in fact, his reactions are almost entirely internalized). "Kids just are wherever they are and do whatever they're doing," he offers
in an early scrap of narration. But as he watches and tries to process this new world, we see things from
It's a pretty unsavory picture. At the center is queen bee Janine, who treats her boys like fractious children ("Kids, c'mon!" she chuckles when Pope assaults one of his brothers in a cold rage)—when she's not sitting on their laps or kissing them on the lips. J believes the family antics have nothing to do with him and the plucky, kohl-eyed girlfriend (Laura Wheelwright) he starts bringing round the house. But as the family history begins to ensnare him, and he has his first brush with the law, J has to start thinking for himself when a concerned, well-intentioned police detective, Leckie (Guy Pearce) tries to offer him a chance to save himself.
Michod excels in constructing a web of intrigue where corruption is so ingrained (on both sides of the law), there is literally nowhere for J to go and no one he dares trust. A propulsive musical score by Antony Partos that seems to throb in the viewers' blood adds extra menace to this well-acted, but almost relentlessly grim morality play.
ANIMAL KINGDOM ★★★(out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
With Ben Mendelsohn, Jacki Weaver, James Frecheville, and Guy Pearce. Written and directed by David Michod. A Sony Classics release. Rated R. 113 minutes.
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