Set amidst the explosive world of a family addicted to crime, as experienced through the eyes of a naïve 17-year-old youth (James Frecheville) who enters their lair. It’s the Wild West, where criminals and police wage their war on the city’s streets, while the innocent suffer the consequences.
Early on in Animal Kingdom, writer/director David Michôd’s frankly astonishing debut feature, the teenage narrator Joshua 'J’ Cody (James Frecheville) talks about the world he has entered upon moving in with his grandmother, a criminal matriarch, and her brood of career criminal sons. The oversized boy notes the air of violence and the everyday bravura, but what strikes him is the fear. Everyone is scared, both of what they could end up doing and what will befall them. It’s as if the unwritten rules of their world, the protocols, have been breached and no-one knows what will come next.
That’s one of many crucial distinctions in a film that remakes the crime genre, giving us a saga that is shocking and beautiful, poised and amoral. Since Little Caesar in 1931, the gangster film has been about status and advancement, wealth and prestige; 'when you get the money"¦ you get the women," as Al Pacino’s Tony Montana told a generation in 1983’s Scarface. But Animal Kingdom, for all the machinations of the plot, exists on a more primal level. It is about survival, about how a boy who is built like a man must decide how to prove that he is one.
It is easily the best Australian film since Andrew Dominik’s Chopper in 2000, and while both are first features inspired by real life events in the Melbourne underworld, they take vastly different approaches (Chopper, after all, is a black comedy). What unites them is that they’re director’s films – the style is stamped on every set-up, on very frame. The fear that J senses is palpable as the story gets underway, with dread suffusing every scene as the family’s activities start to go haywire.
'Pope’ Cody, who commands his brothers, is on the run from the Armed Robbery Squad, who in one of several echoes of late '80s Melbourne, have taken to turning arrests into unofficial executions. There’s no money in armed robbery, and while his lieutenant 'Baz’ Brown (Joel Edgerton) is happy to play the stock market, Craig Cody (Sullivan Stapleton) has moved into the burgeoning drug trade, while the younger Darren (Luke Ford) simply waits to be told what to do.
That they all live together, in the house of initially genial matriarch Janine 'Smurf’ Cody (Jackie Weaver) only adds to the instability; nothing is ever quite right in their dynamic, including their response to a brutal provocation. The 37-year-old Michôd tells us all this economically, using observation and minor moments instead of leaden exposition: you sense Baz’s calming role from a minor conversation he has with J in a restaurant bathroom, while Pope’s complete absence of morality can be felt in the dead eyes that haunt Mendelsohn’s tired face.
Animal Kingdom marks the arrival of that Australian cinematic rarity: the natural born filmmaker. As fine a writer as he is, Michôd is not someone who directed because they had a great screenplay to their name – he’s meant to make films. He’s taken the Australian suburban milieu – the Cody’s are by no means wealthy – and captured the torpor of summer, making it as unsettling as a Michael Haneke film. It’s only afterwards, for example, that you realise how little kinetic action there is, despite the subject matter. The stillness is oppressive, to the point where Darren can’t even move, let alone object, as a paranoid Pope casually commits a murder.
For all his fine work over the last few years, Pope may well be the defining role of Ben Mendelsohn’s once more blooming career. The character is not without his charisma – it’s Mendelsohn’s innate, unmistakable quality – but here it has darkened and become malignant. His silence is not about coolness, it’s an absence of morality. Pope does little, then he goes to dispassionate extremes. He’s alarming not because of what he does, but because you slowly realise there’s nothing he wouldn’t do.
When the Cody’s are investigated by the police, it’s the watchful Detective Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce) who realises that J is their weak point, the one member of the family not yet fully inoculated. Pearce plays his scenes quietly, with a fatherly compassion for the strapping boy, and you’re never sure if it’s genuine or an effective strategy. No-one who wants to survive in this world can be what they truly are, for better or worse, a point driven home when Smurf takes command of the family’s defence, briefing their lawyer (a droll Dan Wyllie) and calmly pointing out to corrupt police that their interests coincide. Weaver’s performance could add whole extra textbooks to studies of the Oedipus complex.
Michôd eschews any sign of society’s formal systems. While a court case eventually ensures, the camera of first-time director of photography Adam Arkapaw never enters a courtroom. Such places are obsolete to both the Cody’s and the police, their rules anathema; the legal system is a veneer for both sides to hide behind while they achieve their goals. Everything that might have taken most directors to communicate in 10 minutes of leaden courtroom scenes (cut to the judge, cut to the defence, cut to the prosecution) Michôd gets across in a single, brief shot in a car, where a police officer’s professionalism is ruptured by incandescent rage.
What ultimately assures Animal Kingdom of not merely greatness, but candidacy to classic status, is that it never loses its focus or relents. Everything that it puts in place it carries through, right to the final scene where you realise the choice that J has ultimately made, and where it has left him. The film puts to one side a decade of pop culture quoting gangster flicks, it tops two decades of wan Australian coming of age stories. Seeing what it does to the crime movie leaves you feeling like the American audiences who had experienced film noir and saw it come back completely remade as Godard’s Breathless and the French New Wave.
In a terrifying film, the scariest thing about Animal Kingdom is how staggeringly good it is.