In 1988, two Australian police officers were gunned down while responding to a report of an abandoned car. The car, which was left in the middle of the road with its windows smashed, was later discovered to be bait, and the officers’ murders were a premeditated act of revenge. Four men were charged with the killings, accused of retaliating against the allegedly unwarranted shooting of their friend by police the day prior.
Animal Kingdom, the debut feature from writer/director David Michôd, takes its (albeit loose) inspiration from these events.
After his mother dies of a heroin overdose, seventeen-year-old Joshua “J” Cody (James Frecheville) moves in with his grandmother, Janine “Smurf” Cody (played by a brilliantly eerie Jacki Weaver), and quickly discovers that his mother’s drug problem was the least of his family’s issues. His three uncles – Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford) – along with best friend Barry “Baz” Brown (Joel Edgerton), support themselves through an array of crimes. Pope and Baz are armed robbers, Craig deals drugs and Darren dabbles lightly in either. Initially fascinated by it, J, with the encouragement of Smurf, acquaints himself with their lifestyle.
When Baz is shot by police, Pope organizes an act of revenge, implicating an unsuspecting J in his plans to murder two police officers. As J becomes more immersed in his uncles’ world, he begins to realize that their life may not be what he wants for himself. As he considers distancing himself from his family, he learns that he may already be in too deep.
Michôd lets his first act develop slowly, allowing the viewer to settle into his gritty portrait of Australia’s criminal underworld. Each character is given their due; clearly defining their personalities and relationships with one another so that when the plot does ramp up, the stakes are firmly established.
J acts as the film’s protagonist. The events of the film unfold around him and directly affect him, but he is also the picture’s least compelling personality. Frecheville plays him appropriately mutedly. His immediate feelings and motivations are always ambiguous, mirroring the feelings of the viewer. As is he, we are always unsure of how we feel about the Cody brothers; do we love or loathe them?
Of the three, Ben Mendelsohn’s Pope is the most intriguing. Introduced as a tad paranoid, and perhaps even mentally unstable, Mendelsohn convinces the audience that this character is somehow sympathetic. Yes, he does horrible things, but he isn’t a bad guy. Even as his actions become more heinous – murdering a pair of random cops – his motivations remain arguably noble: loyalty to a friend. It is only through subtle hints and gestures throughout the film that we begin to understand how truly evil he is – and it’s for very unexpected reasons. Mendelsohn’s perfect capturing of this polarizing duality is sure to earn him some attention when awards are dished out at year’s end – Pope Cody is one of the most deeply unsettling characters to hit the screen in some time.
The second act brings senior police officer Nathan Leckie (Guy Pierce, the brilliant cast’s most familiar face) into the mix. Like Pope, Leckie is a man of many dimensions. Throughout the film we, as outsiders looking in, are unsure whose side we’re on. The Codys are undoubtedly amoral men, but the Australian police force is also unnervingly corrupt. Leckie is hard to root for, and audiences are unsure whether or not his attempts at helping J dissociate himself from his family are genuine attempts to better the teenager’s life, or if he is just using the boy for his own selfish means: putting J’s uncles behind bars.
With his first ever film, Michôd has set the bar high for himself. With the exception of a couple easily forgivable narrative bumps in the last act, he delivers a near-perfect script and brings it to the screen with unfathomable competence. When a director has an incredible cast of characters, the best thing he can do is just let his film evolve around them. Michôd knows this and admirably resists any temptation to distract from them with unnecessary cinematic flourish. Instead he focuses on pulling out the best possible performances from his actors – a task at which he succeeds spectacularly. His minimalistic style won’t work for every story, but for this one, it couldn’t be more appropriate.
Ultimately, what we have here is a classic battle between good and evil. But when the distinction between the two is this distorted, the resulting struggle for clarity is electrifying. If Animal Kingdom is able to find the audience it deserves, it is sure to secure its place among cinema’s great crime dramas.