Animal Kingdom -- Film Review

Jacki Weaver in 'Animal Kingdom'
Courtesy of Porchlight Films

Jacki Weaver, who portrays a monstrous mom in the Australian crime tale Animal Kingdom, has worn her share of wigs in her day. But she held off playing this crime-family matron. "They hot rollered my hair beyond belief," she admits.

A naturalistic approach to an underworld story from Down Under is a welcome relief from exaggerated Hollywood fare.

PARK CITY -- The Australian gangster movie "Animal Kingdom" is a brooding, intimate, clear-eyed look at the precipitous downfall of a family in the Melbourne underworld. This crime film is not jokey like a Quentin Tarantino film, nor an epic romance like a Francis Ford Coppola film. Instead writer-director David Michod opts for a naturalistic drama rich in psychology and attention to details. There's no glamour here, but one false move by anyone can result in death, so tension fills nearly every scene. The family business is nasty and wet -- wet as in blood.

The film was clearly an audience favorite at Sundance, and positive critical reaction could bode well for international as well as domestic theatrical play. It certainly marks an auspicious directing debut by Michod, who exhibits great confidence as he lets this densely layered crime story unfold in measured but by no means slow rhythms.

Michod brings the viewer into a tacky suburban dwelling where the Cody clan and their friends live and plot their schemes. Seldom has a gangster film shown how utterly mundane evil can be. But the family itself is terrifying: If psychosis is hereditary, the Codys are Exhibit 1.

The film's entry point is young Joshua Cody (newcomer James Frecheville), whom everyone calls "J." His mother wisely kept him away from her murderous family, but when she ODs on heroin, he has little choice but to be taken in by his grandmother Smurf Cody (Jacki Weaver in a riveting performance).

Family head, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), is in hiding as several rogue cops want him dead. His partner, Baz (Joel Edgerton), would like to lie low permanently, putting his ill-gotten gains into the stock market and steering clear of crime. But Smurf still maintains charge of her family's business, watching over her boys and giving each lingering kisses full on the mouth.

Working in the drug trade are the unstable and speed-addicted Craig Cody (Sullivan Stapleton), nearly always shirtless to display a tapestry of chest tattoos, and younger brother Darren (Luke Ford), largely ineffectual and lost but still thinking he's a player.

J can't help getting involved in things, at first oblivious to the danger to which he is subjecting not only himself but also his new girlfriend, Nicky (Laura Wheelright). This is especially true when a foolish revenge slaying of two police officers brings intense heat down on the family.

Arrests are made, and detective Leckie (Guy Pearce) makes a point to keep J longer than other family members, thereby raising suspicions that he might have talked more than he should. Those suspicions become the deadly seeds the senior cop intended. It isn't long before J is more fearful of family members than the police.

The 17-year-old makes a most interesting dramatic device for observing this family. One sees things through his eyes, how people only gradually show their true colors and how trust can be lost in an instant. The Cody boys intend to be alpha dogs in the animal kingdom. When a punk mistakenly picks a road-rage fight with Craig, he hands his nephew a gun and says, "Let 'em know who's king."

The boy picks up the gun in that instance, but doubts creep in about his family. It isn't just that Pope thinks J needs to jettison the girlfriend -- women talk too much -- it has more to do with how easily he can be distrusted and how trigger-happy family members are.

The lanky Frecheville is a brilliant casting choice. He plays J as quietly watchful and then wary. He is a man-child who will have to develop rapidly if he is to survive.

The crime mother here is the most ferocious one since Ma Barker. Michod and his actress, Weaver, play this with great subtlety, introducing her first as a doting grandmother before gradually revealing her cold authority and manipulation of her offspring and grandson.

Mendelsohn plays Pope as an edgy and probably crazy man who absolutely must feel in control of any situation. Stapleton is all nervous energy without a whole lot of thought.

Pearce is good at playing ambiguousness. How far his concern for J's welfare really goes is vague. His job is, of course, to solve the murder of two cops. The film is never clear at how aware he might be about the rogue element within his own force.

One would also like to better understand how the Cody family fits into the Melbourne underworld. Are they loners? Do they work with or against other families? They seem -- rather unlikely, though -- to be a one-stop source of middle-level crime, mostly armed robbery and drugs, for the greater urban area.

Natural, low-key lighting in real locations gives the drama a strong verisimilitude, and Michod's downplaying of the violence, turning away from the gun-battle ballets that dominate Hollywood crime pictures, keeps things real.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival
Production companies: A Screen Australia and Porchlight Films present in association with Film Victoria, Screen NSW, Fulcrum Media Finance and Showtime Australia a Porchlight Films production
Cast: James Frecheville, Guy Pearce, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver, Sullivan Stapleton
Director/screenwriter: David Michod
Producer: Liz Watts
Executive producer: Bec Smith, Vincent Sheehan
Director of photography: Adam Arkapaw
Production designer: Jo Ford
Music: Antony Partos
Costume designer: Cappi Ireland
Editor: Luke Doolan
Sales: E1 Entertainment
No rating, 114 minutes