The Australian-made Animal Kingdom is among the most gripping, well-paced, acted and directed, and generally thrilling of anything that I’ve seen (yet) this year.
From the opening scene, where we meet a fellow named Joshua (James Frecheville), sitting passively next to his slumped-over unconscious mother and keeping an eye on the TV even while the paramedics are busy working on her (to no avail), writer-director David Michôd sets a rather grim tone and tableau. After his mother’s death, “J” goes to live with his Grandmother Smurf (Jacki Weaver) and a family his mother never wanted him to know. It soon becomes clear why: One uncle, Pope Cody (Ben Mendelsohn), a charismatic sociopath, is an armed robber on the run from the cops; another uncle is a thriving drug dealer (and addict); and yet another is somehow mixed up in all of this mess. Meanwhile, Grandma Smurf (the nickname is never quite explained) maintains a somewhat icky intimacy with her sons and their business partner, Baz Brown (Joel Edgerton). As J tries to learn how to navigate this new and fairly terrifying world, things quickly begin to unspool: Baz is trying to get out of the crime business; the cops are beginning to seem a little criminal themselves and then … well, it all gets much worse. So much worse! J must choose which side to align himself with-a family he’s never known (and clearly craved), or a friendly-seeming policeman (Guy Pearce) who seems to genuinely want to help. Who knew Melbourne was such a hotbed of trouble? Mr. Michôd’s film somehow manages to nimbly sidestep clichéd shoot-em-up-which-side-are-you-on drama territory. These finely drawn characters are as sympathetic as they are repellent, and each twist is unpredictable, imbuing a sense of menace and tension in every scene that is nearly unbearable (as Animal Kingdom concludes, nearly every single person in the screening room audibly exhaled).
The acting is excellent. Ms. Weaver plays her role with murderous charm-has there been such a terrifying onscreen matriarch since Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest? Mr. Pearce quietly continues to be among the most interesting character actors working today, and where one earth did this Joel Edgerton person come from? Um, look out, Sam Worthington! (Does Australia just generate good actors the way Serbians produce athletes?) And it’s hard to take your eyes off Mr. Mendelsohn whenever he’s onscreen. So creepy, so seductive, so scary-his stillness is more disturbing than when he’s forced into action.
Here’s hoping that this is a film that actually, you know, gets seen by some people. It comes at the end of a rather tired summer.
Running time 112 minutes
Written and directed by David Michôd
Starring Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Jackie Weaver, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton, James Frecheville
3.5 Eyeballs out of 4