David Michôd’s confident debut feature Animal Kingdom is a calm, studied approach to the the crime genre that sensibly plays out more like a family drama.
Relative newcomer James Frecheville plays Joshua Cody, a teenage kid who is drawn into a world of crime against his will when, in the opening moments of the film, his mother overdoses on heroin and dies. Enter Jacki Weaver as Janine Cody, his grandmother who, it transpires, his mother had good reasons for trying to keep him away from. She lives with her three sons Andrew, Craig and Darren, who are involved in the armed robbery business.
Josh’s involvement in this world is auxiliary at best; indeed, his reactions to the world around him are quiet and stunted. He doesn’t talk much. He’s never quite comfortable, in particular when he’s around the eldest of the brothers, Andrew (known as ‘Pope’) played effectively by Ben Mendelsohn. Josh’s opening monologue is the most we’ll hear out of him over the course of the film. He’s quiet, introspected and easily influenced. As the film moves on, and things begin to go wrong in the Cody family, Josh will have to decide where his allegiances really lie.
Animal Kingdom enters a genre filled with successful and critically acclaimed portrayals of families involved in crime, from The Godfather trilogy to Goodfellas. Michôd, though, chooses to make his film a drama about family rather than a drama about crime, and in many ways the choice pays off. The film rarely depicts violent events, and what set-pieces there are are subtle and short, though well-staged.
The cast is strong. At the beginning of the film, Joel Edgerton cuts a charismatic figure as Barry Brown (Pope’s friend) and initially seems to be the best role model for Josh. Later, as things begin to unravel, Josh is left more and more to deal with Pope’s unpredictable and ever more desperate actions. Frecheville isn’t called upon to do too much acting – his character’s blank canvas is not unlikable but a little frustrating at times – but the one scene in which he gets to cut loose is performed well. Later, Guy Pearce – the film’s biggest name actor, but not it’s star – brings his usual class to proceedings.
Animal Kingdom meanders along to a melodramatic, almost operatic score by Antony Partos, which at times is very effective but does stray into overblown territory here and there, and is particularly noticeable given that graphic set pieces and emotional outbursts are not what the film is about. Michôd’s direction is calm, unhurried and confident; impressive for a debut feature.
And yet, despite Animal Kingdom’s numerous qualities, I did not love it. Perhaps Josh is simply too passive to make for an entirely satisfactory protagonist, perhaps the characters (though they are played well) are too sto ck to be truly exciting. But it wouldn’t be right to end on a negative note; the film, after all, is well made, well acted and highlights Michôd as a director to look out for.