Published: September 1, 2010
Directed by David Michôd
Opens Sept. 3
As Martin Scorsese settles into his cinematic dotage, directors whose crime movies can stand tall beside his prime-era verve, grit, and sweep are suddenly mushrooming around the globe. First there was Matteo Garrone’s 2008 Gomorrah from Italy, then Jacques Audiard’s 2009 A Prophet from France, and now Australian writer/director’s David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom, the most Scorsesan of them all.
Based in part on the true exploits of Melbourne crime families, Animal Kingdom tracks mouthbreathing, emotionally remote teen Joshua “J” Cody (James Frecheville) after his mother’s death sends him off to live with his tiny blond grandmother Smurf* (Jacki Weaver). J’s mother had always kept him away from his grandmother, and it soon becomes clear why: Smurf hasn’t raised sons so much as she’s spawned a criminal crew, headed up by Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), a weedy Polanski of a man with the unblinking stare of the truly dangerous. Kind-faced family friend Baz (Joel Edgerton) takes a paternal interest in J, while volatile Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) brings him along shotgun on drug deals. Just as J starts to feel like one of the family, the cops come down hard on the Codys, the Codys come back harder, and everyone is quickly reminded how much of a stranger J actually is. Police detective Leckie (Guy Pearce) does his best to bring J in as a witness—and a human being—but it’s soon clear that J’s on his own in this suburban jungle.
Animal Kingdom is a crime flick that rarely depicts crime. Much of the treachery and violence on display here is domestic, even internal, as the cluckingly maternal Smurf manipulates her sons, and her sons address their problems through their damaged emotional responses. That’s not to say that Michôd doesn’t get to flash Scorsesean flair, from shooting the Cody men as if they were predators on a wildlife special to a big emotional crux scored with Aussie MOR band Air Supply’s treacly “All Out of Love.” What you’ll most likely leave the theater remembering, however, are the performances, most especially Mendelsohn’s stunted Pope and Weaver’s sunny, sinister Smurf, an instant classic villainess. But it’s Frecheville, in his first film role, who carries the entire story from the most difficult position imaginable—as an inchoate emotional blank, passively swept along until it’s eat-or-be-eaten time. He’s easy to underestimate, and therein lies much of his—and the movie’s—ultimate power.
*Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly identifies Smurf as J's aunt.
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