Animal Kingdom is a taut, Australian crime drama that some might accuse of being slow, but I accuse of taking the time to fully flesh out and develop characters. Crime films these days, especially in America, have a car chase, an explosion, or a gun battle every 2.5 minutes. There's an entire mathematical formula developed for it. Okay, not really, but Stephen Hawking could probably generate one. You're lucky if you fully understand a character these days, or really appreciate why they are heroic or creepy.
Director David Michod has created a well-paced, dark and moody thriller with this film, and the main reason it works is because it's deliberately slowed down so you can peek inside the train cars that would normally be racing by, which lets you appreciate the performances from all of the actors, and particularly Jacki Weaver, who is pictured above. Sharp-eyed readers might recognize her as Minnie from 1975's Picnic at Hanging Rock, but in Animal Kingdom she's a ruthless and lethal matriarch of a crime family.
In the opening scene of the film, 17-year old Josh (or "J", as he likes to be called) is sitting with his mother, who is dying of a heroin overdose. He calls the paramedics, and idly watches them work on her, while he watches Deal or No Deal out of the corner of his eye. He is unsure what to do once they take her away, and he ends up calling his estranged grandmother who he hasn't spoken to in years. She tells him she'll be around to collect him, and once she does, he's firmly deposited into the darker side of life.
There are no punches pulled with J's uncles. They're tatted up. They curse. They swear. They count huge stacks of money. In short order, the audience is informed that this side of the family has been making a living robbing banks, but now the government is cracking down hard with an Armed Robbery Squad, and they're slowly closing in on the Cody family. Tempers flare, everyone is suspicious of everyone, but none more so than Uncle "Pope" (Ben Mendelsohn), who turns in an extremely chilling performance.
Remember Begbie in Trainspotting? He was a real wild card, as apt to stab you in the neck as he was to give you a hug. Pope is cut from the same cloth, but rather than living larger than life and running around spouting epithets, he eerily whispers to people in that low tone that barely tickles your eardrums. It's very unnerving, and it makes you hate his character even more. But in the end, he's really nothing compared to his mother.
As "Smurf" Cody, Weaver smiles through her white teeth and painted lips while the wheels turn behind her eyes. At first she seems like a caring mother who is just a bit too loving with her sons. She kisses them full on the mouth at all times, much to their chagrin, although they never turn her down. At first glance she simply seems like a caring family member, but before long you realize she's the angry snake rearing its head, protecting the brood.
The film is told through J's eyes, as he's brought into the fold after the death of his mother, and when one of their own is killed, J falls under the control of Pope, who has him steal a car. When the Cody's use the car as a staging ground for some revenge cop-killing, the noose is drawn tighter and tighter with J right in the middle of things. Guy Pearce has a small but memorable role as a detective looking like Batman's Commissioner Gordon: The Younger Years, complete with mustache and glasses.
James Frecheviller does an adequate job as the blank-faced, deer-in-the-headlights J, but this movie really belongs to Jacki Weaver and Ben Mendelsohn. Despite the incredibly twisted things that Smurf does, especially in the second half of the film, you somehow still manage to feel sorry for her. However, it's impossible to like Mendelsohn's Pope, and you constantly hope that he'll get run down by a stray bus, or taken out by another family member.
With lots of moody lighting, including a overuse of blue, and an ambient soundtrack, Animal Kingdom delves into Michael Mann's Heat territory from time to time. However, that doesn't stop this film, which won the World Cinema Jury Prize: Dramatic, from being thoroughly enjoyable. The only fault I can find with it is that even after the 112 minute running time, I wanted to spend more time with J's other uncles. Possibly even Smurf. Not Pope though. That guy is just too unsettling.