Animal Kingdom (2010)

26 February 2011

There's a moment quite early on in writer-director David Michôd's debut feature Animal Kingdom that is not only unexpected, but completely wrongfoots the viewer and announces a shift in tone for the rest of the film, from intriguing if routine crime drama to a taut, sustained and impressive examination of the decline and fall of a matriarchal family based in suburban Melbourne.

The moment in question becomes obvious upon viewing, and combined with a confident approach to his material thereafter, Michôd declares himself an intelligent director of violence, recalling the New Zealand-born Australian Andrew Dominik, whose 2000 debut feature Chopper made much the same impact. Dominik followed that film with the magnificent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in 2007, confirming himself hot property; going by Animal Kingdom, we might encourage David Michôd not to take seven years to write and direct his next feature...

Michôd's film begins with a death and posits what happens to those left behind in the aftermath: in this instance, young Joshua 'J' Cody (James Frecheville) calls his grandmother to matter-of-factly tell her his mother has died of a heroin overdose. Grandma is Janine (Oscar-nominated Jackie Weaver), and she happens to rule the family roost over her three sons, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), Darren (Luke Ford) and Pope (Ben Mendelsohn). Craig is a mid-level drugs runner; Pope and Darren are armed robbers with Pope's friend Barry Brown (Joel Edgerton). Outside the family home, the police are a constant presence, sitting in wait for Pope to return from hiding; they have a ruthless, trigger-happy reputation. J is plunged into this domestic life and gradually and inevitably becomes implicated in its criminal activities.

The death with which Animal Kingdom opens sets the scene for its recurring thematic focus: the emotional consequences of grieving. But not just a general grief: whereas J's mother dies of an overdose, the deaths that drive the narrative thereafter are violent murders. Michôd's approach is to stun us with gun shots and then linger on the corpses; his gun violence is stylistically distinctive but suitably ugly. The dead don't get a word in: discussing an act of murderous retribution after the fact, Jackie tells her son Pope that the dead victim he has avenged isn't in any way able to speak for them or aid them in their legal hearings. Here, death's consequences are made all the more tragic by the arbitrariness of the deaths themselves.

With young J at the centre of the film, Michôd heightens our sympathies for what is largely a mute, ambiguous character by surrounding him with threatening, overbearing forces. If the film begins as a vague cops and robbers drama, it quickly unfolds into something much more unique and unsettling, wherein the police force is not only underhanded and often insensitive to J's moral dilemmas, but also corrupt, with the potential of becoming undone from within, much like the Cody family itself.

Indeed, if the legal line is clear here, the moral one barely exists. As the lead detective who wants J to finally testify against his family, Guy Pearce is credible as a kind of more realistic, naive extension of Edmund J. Exley in L.A. Confidential. His efforts to provide protection to J seem honest and reasonable enough, but the system itself renders him futile - in the same act in which Jackie Weaver comes into her own, going beyond the unnerving, almost incestuous matriarch to a conniving, frightening monster.

The real victims here are the young: not just J himself, but his girlfriend, whose genuine innocence with regard to the Codys' criminal activity makes for a particularly horrific scene when juxtaposed against Ben Mendelsohn's sociopathic, ironically-named Pope. Between an at-best dubious police force and a family who have betrayed him, J's final act becomes one of troubling violence. Michôd doesn't provide us complete moral closure, but his narrative has come full circle and has said enough: in the animal kingdom, when the weak have no support, they must finally fend for themselves.