It doesn’t take long into writer/director David Michôd’s debut feature, Australian crime film Animal Kingdom, before you feel like you’re being introduced to a potentially major new filmmaker. The opening scene depicts a teenage boy sitting slack on the couch of a disheveled apartment living room, afternoon sun pouring through the window behind him. He stares blankly at a television where — rather pointedly — the game show Deal or No Deal is on. Beside him is an older woman, presumably his mother, slumped down, presumably asleep. The image holds for several seconds until we see a team of EMTs enter from behind. It’s then that we learn his mother has overdosed on heroin. As the medical workers tend to her, the young man stands out of their way but can’t stop his gaze from wandering back to the television.
This gradual move from mundane to tragic neatly encapsulates the rest of the film. The young man, Joshua Cody (James Frecheville), now an orphan, is taken in by his estranged grandmother, who stays close to her other children — three uncles who seem to be involved in a variety of petty and not-so-petty crimes. Darren (Luke Ford) is the youngest, uneasy in the family “business” and seemingly a glimpse into Joshua’s possible future. Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), a tattooed drug dealer with crooked-cop connections, is the most daring and physical of the brood. The eldest brother, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), is a sullen, shifty figure, off his meds and in hiding. Non-family associate Barry (fellow Aussie filmmaker Joel Edgerton, whose own crime flick, The Square, had a brief Memphis run earlier this year) seems to be the most grounded of the crew. Hovering over them all is the Ma Barker-esque grandmother, nicknamed Smurf and brought to life in a memorably uneasy performance by Jacki Weaver.
We don’t see this clan in the commission of a crime but hunkered down in the aftermath, and the first act of violence we see isn’t perpetrated by a Cody but by the cops trying to take them down. It’s the reckless decision by an unstable Pope to retaliate that pulls Joshua deeper into the family’s lawlessness. Joshua isn’t so much welcomed into this extended family as put to use. He’s accepted as an expendable commodity, deployed as needed until he becomes a potential problem. Gradually, the danger infecting the family touches Joshua and begins to threaten others in his orbit. Along the way, the film earns its metaphoric title, as this clan definitely doesn’t mind devouring its young. Animal Kingdom has its share of Scorsese-isms, and these sometimes feel like overreach. The initially innocent protagonist’s entry into a close-knit criminal world, at first told with a soon-abandoned voiceover, is reminiscent of Goodfellas (though Animal Kingdom shouldn’t otherwise be saddled with that daunting comparison).
And there are a couple of pop music cues here that feel like Scorsese hand-me-downs via P.T. Anderson. Air Supply’s power ballad “All Out of Love” is the ’80s kitsch-pop repurposed to would-be chilly effect here. Michôd’s camera pans across a flickering televised video of the song to Joshua and his girlfriend (Laura Wheelwright), sleeping entwined on the couch, finally landing on the numbed visage of Pope. That we’ve seen this before doesn’t matter. In Boogie Nights, Anderson turned a compendium of borrowed bits into something great. But Michôd doesn’t quite find the cinematic alchemy here the way Anderson did with “Jesse’s Girl.” But a few directorial flourishes aside, Animal Kingdom purposefully lacks the flashiness of most American crime films, a consequence of its refusal to glorify its protagonists.
A comparison to another new film about an imperiled group of robbers, Ben Affleck’s The Town, is instructive. The Town is a generally terrific, Hollywood-style crime thriller, but it’s overheated where Animal Kingdom is grounded. There are many fewer gunshots in the entire two hours of Michôd’s film than in just a few seconds of one of The Town’s big set pieces, but every pulled trigger comes with enormous consequences. And the crew of crooks here are not charismatic or sympathetic. They are dull, brutish, and frightened.
Animal Kingdom won the World Jury Dramatic Prize (aka “best foreign film”) at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and it’s easy to see why. If David Michôd goes too far at times in pursuit of American icons, he’s still produced an impressively realized debut feature that suggests even better things could be ahead.Animal Kingdom Opening Friday, September 24th Ridgeway Four