“Animal Kingdom” (2010)
by A.J. Hakari
I’ll often see crime dramas forget that just because they spend a lot of time with unsavory characters, that doesn’t mean they’re obligated to be the “heroes.” As good as Sidney Lumet’s Find Me Guilty was, it still tried making mafia thugs out as the good guys on the grounds of Vin Diesel being wacky and the prosecutor being a Walter Peck-level dick. Animal Kingdom goes a step further by having its criminal element be an actual family, but it makes no efforts to humanize their heinous activity. This Australian import lays out quite clearly the harsh reality of the lifestyle it depicts, a dog-eat-dog world in which the effective scripting and powerful ensemble cast make sure every bite is felt.
17-year-old Josh Cody (James Frecheville) has just lost his mother to a drug overdose. With no one else around to look after him, Josh has no choice but to turn to the extended family he’s been deliberately shielded from for years. Although his grandma Janine (Jacki Weaver) welcomes him with open arms, it doesn’t mask the fact that she and her three sons are heavily involved in some illegal dealings that have them presently laying low. But the cops are getting anxious themselves, until a violent incident one day kicks off the beginning of the end. As the Codys wage war with the law, Josh is shaken out of his complacency, confronted with the choice of either staying with the closest thing he has to a family or helping bring them to justice.
Animal Kingdom‘s advertising has touted it as an Aussie Goodfellas, which isn’t altogether false. In the sense that it’s about a man whose loyalty to a close-knit family unit with ties to crime, then yeah, there’s a connection. But a big difference is that Animal Kingdom never actually shows what it is that has the Codys so wanted by the fuzz. Like Josh, we’re drop-kicked in the middle of their goings-on and kept mainly in the dark; all we know is that their world is starting to crash around them, and they’ve been in it too long to go down without a fight. As the title suggests, all notions of family are abandoned when everyone starts fighting for survival, with the audience left wondering where the hell Josh is going to end up when the smoke clears.
But if Animal Kingdom missteps, it’s in making its protagonist too much of a blank slate for viewers to project themselves onto. Josh is introduced to us nonchalantly watching TV while paramedics attend to his mom’s corpse, and he carries on with that detachment for the remainder of the film. But we’re never even given a hint at what made him so inactive to begin with, which makes getting behind his moral quandry difficult when he brushes off his uncles blowing away innocent cops with zero compassion. Also left unexplored is how ruthless the police are at wanting to nail the Codys, a potential gray area gone white the minute Guy Pearce’s near-saintly lawman arrives to help lead Josh down the straight and narrow. But despite these storytelling bumps, the film always has a great stable of performers working in its favor, the best turns being delivered by Pearce, Warrior‘s Joel Edgerton, and Weaver, who deservedly earned Oscar attention for her work as a granny whose affection hides a very sinister soul.
In the past, I’d had a bad run of overly-quirky and loud Australian cinema that put me off its product for a long time. But Animal Kingdom bucks all such preconceptions to show us the effects of desperation on a criminal mind with grit and suspense. It’s not Goodfellas good, but it has punch and, most importantly, tells a familiar story in its own absorbing way.