Writer/director David Michod's Animal Kingdom is another one of those tiny, volcanic Australian dramas (e.g. Romper Stomper (1992); Blessed (2009)) that explode off the screen more from superb casting and direction than from originality of plot, which is not to say the plot here is ever less than engrossing.
Animal Kingdom is a searing study of the characteristic impossibility of breaking out of the crime cycle, especially when all your blood relatives are hoods, drug addicts, insane, or all of the three. At least that’s what 17-year-old Joshua “J” Cody (James Frecheville) swiftly ferrets out.
We are introduced to J as he intensely watches a game show on the telly while a pair of paramedics fail to save the life of his mom, who's overdosed. Suddenly an orphan, J phones his long-estranged grandmother, Smurf (Jacki Weaver), for advice. You'll move in with us, grandmom insists. Us?
Please note: Blood isn't always thicker than water.
J discovers there might have been reasons his ma refrained from family reunion participation. For example, his three uncles are bank robbers being hunted by the Melbourne police. Darren (Luke Ford) is the youngest. Blond and a wearer of pink dress shirts now and then, he's a rather despondent gang member. The more ebullient Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is an attractive, drug-addicted, tattooed, highly wound-up, paranoid rogue who's still very neat around the house. And then there’s Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), an off-kilter, extremely loopy, manic killer.
If that weren't enough, when they’re home, Grandma Smurf constantly kisses her sons on the lips a bit too long for comfort. As for the newest member of her family, towards J, she's all honey with cyanide swirls.
Now the question that arises is: can a basically gentle-natured, but not extremely bright, young man who just wants to lead an uneventful life survive in such an environment, especially when the local cops are constantly parked outside his home, waiting to exterminate his kin?
Frecheville, in his film debut, makes you care. In one scene, cornered alone in his girlfriend Nicky's bathroom, J starts sputtering in despair as he eyes her scattered makeup and tossed garments. He realizes he's being permanently separated from that disarrayed feminine normalcy, from that delicious inexperienced romance, and that quiet humdrum existence he so craves. And he's not being punished for his own actions. J's losing to powers beyond his control. It's a superb, unforgettable moment.
And there are more than a few others here, especially due to Ms. Weaver's macabre maternal turns, Antony Partos's score, and Michod’s helming. Clearly, Animal Kingdom deserved winning the Grand Jury Prize: World Cinema Dramatic at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
Other than the need for subtitles here and there, and Guy Pearce''s disconcerting mustache, this a rock-solid tragic tale which forcefully argues, "Fate chooses our relatives, we choose our friends." And whoever said Fate was kind? - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is featured in the forthcoming documentary Activist: The Times of Vito Russo and has been edited out of Rosa von Praunheim's New York Memories. In the fall, he'll be teaching "American Jewish Theater" and "Theater into Film" at The City College of New York. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi).