"Crooks always come undone,
always, one way or another" - Joshua Cody |
Unwilling to glamorize predatory criminals as in other well-known crime films, David Michod's gritty Animal Kingdom portrays an Australian family of drug dealers and bank robbers as they are, disturbed sociopaths without a trace of conscience. Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, this low-key thriller is a crime drama, a psychological case study, and a coming of age story about a young boy trying to get through his teenage years without being scarred for life by the people around him, none of whom he can trust. The film will hold you in a vise from its opening moment until its unpredictable ending.
Narrated years later by Joshua Cody (James Frecheville), known as J, the opening scene creates the mood for what will follow. J lounges on his sofa watching both the TV game show “Deal or No Deal” and the paramedics working on his mother, slumped beside him after having OD'd on drugs. The boy is expressionless and acts as if he's on another planet, having tuned out the unpleasant things in this world. When his mother dies, he has no choice other than to call his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver), known as “Grandma Smurf,” the matriarch of a group of social misfits whose kisses on her boys' lips and cheery ways belie a darker undercurrent.
No longer shielded from the family by his mother, J is thrown into the middle of a blood feud between his uncles and the corrupt Armed Robbery Squad, cops who believe that the law was invented for them to take into their own hands. The charming set of characters that J has to deal with is as clear an example of the banality of evil as ever hit the screen. Not particularly bright or larger than life, they are ordinary human beings with serious problems and the police are not exemplary citizens either. J's mentors include drug dealer Craig Cody (Sullivan Stapleton), the passive, uncommunicative Darren (Luke Ford), and the peach of the lot, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), a mumbling sociopath who has just returned from hiding and fears the police are targeting him.
Also part of the gang is Barry Brown, known as “Baz” (Joel Edgerton), a bank robber who tells them in an unguarded moment, "Our game is over. It's getting too hard." Gracious on the outside but ruthless on the inside, Grandma “Smurf” offers little protection for J from the colony of predators around him. His only connection to sanity is his girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright) and her family, with whom he spends more and more time with, especially after an act of police violence kills a member of the clan while sitting in his car. When Pope tells J to steal a car and bring it to him at 2:00 AM, J, however, becomes more deeply involved. Forced to participate in a revenge ambush that leaves two cops dead, he becomes the target of an investigation led by detective Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce), one of the few “good cops” in the film.
After Leckie brings him in for questioning, the paranoid Pope and the rest of the family assume that he has spilled the beans. After another gruesome killing of someone close to him, J is forced to choose between loyalty to his brothers, his fear of corrupt cops, and his willingness to trust a detective who thinks he can protect him. Supported by a haunting electronic score by Anthony Partos, Animal Kingdom maintains a feeling of tension right from the get-go, its calm exterior belying the menace underneath. With naturalistic performances that make you feel as if the action is happening in your living room, the film is not an easy watch, but it is an experience you will not soon forget.
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