Directed by: David Michod || Produced by: Liz Watts
Screenplay by: David Michod || Starring: James Frecheville, Ben Mendolsohn, Jacki Weaver, Guy Pearce, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton, Joel Edgerton, Anthony Hayes
Music by: Antony Partos || Cinematography: Adam Arkapaw || Edited by: Luke Doolan || Country: Australia || Language: English
Running Time: 112 minutes
Uninitiated misfits finding their path amongst gangsters, murderers, and thieves is a tale that predates cinema itself. The motif became famous with American New Wave films like The Godfather (1972) and later films in the ’80’s (e.g. Scarface ), and of course Martin Scorsese’s modern classic in 1990, Goodfellas. Such an enticing premise has been done to death in both American film industries and abroad, so it is difficult for newcomers utilizing this established formula to stand out.
Animal Kingdom is an Australian response to that competitive genre-call, and its writer-director, David Michod, has crafted a potent tale of crime and family that supersedes most every other modern crime tale released since the new millennium. It is that good.
The film follows protagonist Joshua “J” Cody (James Frecheville) as he is slowly swallowed by the violent, psychopathic embraces of his extended criminal family. In the movie’s opening scene, we see J starring in a catatonic-like state at a mindless game show on television as his mother is slumped next to him, over-dosed on heroine and likely dead before the paramedics arrive. J answers their questions in emotionless monotone and then promptly resumes watching the program, as if he’s seen this charade before and has given up caring about it and much of the rest of world. Once he is accepted back into the fold of his mother’s extended family, lead by his Grandmother Janine “Smurf” (an ice-cold Jacki Weaver), a family J’s mother tried to “keep him safe from,” he does his best to keep his head down and avoid trouble on both sides of the law.
Despite his best attempts to mind his own business, J is increasingly caught between a rising gang war of sorts between his thug clan of a family and numerous corrupt cops who act little better than organized criminals themselves. Along the way, J is forced to make gutrenching decisions as he tries to do both what is right and also protect himself and his close girlfriend (Laura Wheelwright), discovering that in this modern animal kingdom, only the strong survive.
Animal Kingdom does little cinematographically that hasn’t been before in the crime drama genre, nor is its lead actor particularly resounding as the literal underdog for which we root to come out on top. What is special about the film is how incredibly effective it is at keeping us on the edge of our seats as the narrative rug is being ripped out from under us. It’s never confusing, but rather engaging the way the film keeps you guessing with its multitude of devious supporting characters always shifting stances and counter-moves like a deadly game of chess. The way Michod pays attention to the basics and makes everything feel so fresh and unpredictable, despite the tried-and-true main character development, is amazing.
Speaking of that development, J’s character arc stays true to the film’s title and overarching theme of survival of the fittest. Many of the early instances of J’s lack of confidence or omega status feel cliched, but they’re appropriate setup for all the alpha male gameplay savviness to follow. Just when you think the movie is about to end on as grim and downtrodden a note as possible, just wait — Michod finds what may be the best middle-ground climax in any modern crime film.
If you’ve seen many crime classics, there’s little in Animal Kingdom that’ll stun you, but David Michod’s cop-gangster drama remains as intriguing and unpredictable as any film in years. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a new gangster film this good, and it’s definitely one of the best projects Australia has to offer in the modern age.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: David Michod’s script takes a tried-and-true narrative formula and crafts an awesome, unpredictable crime saga. The only thing more devious and crafty than the story’s coldhearted cop and criminal characters are the narrative twists and turns themselves. Speaking of those devious characters, Animal Kingdom features a standout supporting cast with a forceful but honest Guy Pearce, a psychopathic and tenacious Ben Mendelsohn, and an ice-cold matriarch in Jacki Weaver.
— However… Frecheville isn’t resonating as our underdog protagonist, though his earlier catatonic indifference makes sense given the story’s context and his character’s backstory.
—> HIGHLY RECOMMENDED