2010 | David Michôd
Inspired by the Pettingills, a real-life Melbourne-based crime family, writer/director David Michôd’s debut feature was a refreshing change for the Australian film industry. Not because its an industry which lacks quality, but because it lacks quality which succeeds. Animal Kingdom was a resounding critical and financial success both in Australia and overseas and is revered not because it is a great Australian film, but because it is a great film, period.
After his mother dies of a heroin overdose, teenager James ‘J’ Cody (James Frecheville) calls his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver) asking for help. Despite their estrangement, she asks James to move in, to which he obliges. Here we are introduced to the family. Janine is the matriarch of a Melbourne crime family which specialises in armed robbery and is headed by family friend Baz (Joel Edgerton). The eldest Cody brother, Andrew (Ben Mendehlson) or ‘Pope’, is on the run from the police. Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is a successful drug dealer – successful enough to have bought his mother’s house. Darren (Luke Ford) is the youngest brother, and only a few years older than James. He often follows the lead of the three older males.
When James moves in, Pope is already on the run, and police are surveying the house, as well as the activities of the other family members. Baz informs the family that the Armed Robbery Squad, headed by Detective Senior Sergeant Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce), one of the few “good” cops in Melbourne, are no slouches, and the family needs to start thinking about how to get out of the situation they’re in. From this point on, J isn’t so much as dragged along, but taken under the wing of his family. His grandmother and uncles don’t hide any of their activity from him, but he isn’t made privvy to detailed information. He is never openly reluctant to perform tasks for his uncles, nor is he naive enough to think he’s performing them for “legitimate” purporses, but he is still shocked after he steals a car for them, and finds out what they’ve done with it when he sits down to watch TV the next day.
The film is an honest, brutal examination of a crime family, rather than the usual glorification of organised crime. James Frecheville is reserved, almost perfectly wooden, as the shy, seemingly emotionally-detached lead character. Ben Mendelsohn is the opposite: his performance is loose and exaggerated, as Pope, already psychopathic, descends further as events unfold. Guy Pearce commands the screen no matter what role he is in, but his performance as the honest and caring Nathan Leckie is so powerful that it becomes heartbreaking as he warms to James, urging him not to follow his uncles’ paths. Jacki Weaver is warm and welcoming, so overly affectionate that you can never doubt who is the true head of this family.
The performances are aided by an almost too-perfect script, penned by Michôd but recited as if it weren’t a script at all. ‘J’ mumbles, stumbles and closes off sentences with “and that.” Films are often criticised for the glamorisation of speech – whether it’s a one-liner no one would say, or the right thing is so often spoken at just the right time by exactly the right person, but Animal Kingdom feels like it was written by the characters in the film. What’s on the surface may not be true, although sometimes it is. ‘J’ is often silent when all we want to do is urge him to speak up, and individual speech patterns and habits are laid down perfectly. It is rare to find an auteur with such a strong sense for dialogue, much like a Tarantino but with more conversational direction, or one of the Coen brothers, but with much less sarcastic wit.
Script and performances are combined with a sense of visual confidence. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw makes us feel claustrophobic, like we are stuck at the bottom of a well, but will pull us out before shoving us back in. He makes us feel isolated in areas we shouldn’t feel isolated, uneasy when we should feel comfortable and, for one scene in particular, in one shot, overtly criticises the staging used by media outlets for their own gain. Arkapaw has gone on to use these techniques to perfection in True Detective, a show heavily praised for its cinematography.
Aptly advertised as a crime drama, Animal Kingdom is a drama about a family who also happen to commit crimes, rather than a dramatisation of criminal events. While crime drives the plot, it’s the examination of family, both from the inside and the outside, which drives the story. Crime is not the important thing about the film. Family is. It’s what happens inside that family that matters and how you work together to get yourselves through.