Animal Kingdom is yet another winner from this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Written and directed by first-time feature director, David Michôd, the film begins bleakly and ends with a bang. In between, the scenes and characters steadily build to a slow boil. You’re not sure how where this is going or how it’s going to end, and the uncertainty weighs on you. The ending comes almost as a relief. And when you have a minute to think about what you’ve just seen, you realize that you’ve just been involved with one terrific movie by way of Australia.
Animal Kingdom is told through the eyes of 17 year-old Josh Cody (James Frecheville). We meet Josh in the movie’s opening scene, sitting next to his mother who’s just died from a cocaine overdose. His mother had been estranged from her family, but not knowing what to do after calling the EMT’s, he calls his maternal grandmother, Janine Cody (Jacki Weaver) for support and she comes to pick him up to live with her and her family.
And what a family it is. To call it a den of thieves, and God knows what else, is putting it mildly. Josh’s oldest uncle, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), is wanted by the police on a variety of charges and is in hiding when first introduced. The middle uncle, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), is a drug dealer and user. And the youngest uncle, Darren (Luke Ford), is so hapless and so afraid to utter a thought in front of his brothers, that you feel sorry for him. The close-knit family is rounded out by long-time family friend, Barry Brown (Joel Edgerton), who may be the one sane member of the group. As for the mother, Janine, or as she is called, Grandma Smurf–she would make Ma Barker proud. Janine embraces the careers her boys have chosen for themselves and her kiss on the lips with each of them seems uncomfortably more than motherly.
While you will be appalled by the actions of this psychopathic family, you won’t necessarily be rooting for the police either. Outside of Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce) who’s investigating the crimes of the family, the police force appears to be nearly corrupt as the Cody family.
Animal Kingdom‘s actors are superb. Mendelsohn gives a chilling performance as the psychotic, cold-hearted uncle who instigates much of the action. Weaver is terrific as the grandmother from Hell. Relative newcomers Ford and most especially Frecheville don’t say much, but their body language speaks volumes and they do a great job in conveying the inarticulateness of boys their age. And the underrated Guy Pearce brings just the right touch as hard-nosed detective/father figure.
Although not especially gory, Animal Kingdom will turn your stomach just the same. The writing, acting and directing are just that brilliant. This is a film not to be missed. I can’t wait to see what Michôd does next.
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