This post was first published by Suite101. It contains spoilers.
The biggest film to come out of Australia in 2010 was undoubtedly Animal Kingdom, directed by David Michod and starring Jackie Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn and Guy Pearce. The film won the World Cinema Dramatic Jury Prize at Sundance in 2010, and Jackie Weaver has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
The focus of the story is Josh (‘J’) Cody, played by James Frecheville. In the first scene we see J sitting on the couch with a woman, watching a game show. After a minute two paramedics enter and it becomes apparent that the woman is J’s mother, and that she has overdosed on heroin. J half watches the TV, half observes the paramedics as they take his dead mother away. It is understated, and deeply sad. While J seems lacking in emotion, there is certainly the sense – throughout the entire film – of a huge amount of feeling bubbling away inside him. J calls his grandmother Janine, played by Jackie Weaver, a woman his mother had been estranged from for over five years because of a disagreement over a card game (“I lost my only daughter ‘cause you can’t play the joker in a no trumps hand” Janine remembers). Janine comes to get J and just like that he is part of the family.
Janine is the head – the matriarch – of the ‘animal kingdom’ that is J’s family. She loves “her boys” – drug dealers and violent criminals all of them – with an intensity that borders on the erotic. J watches this world with a bewildered fear. It is a house bursting with testosterone, rippling with the potential for violence. Craig (played by Sullivan Stapleton) is a successful drug dealer addicted to cocaine – a pulsing, jittery ball of tight muscle and wild emotional swings. However it is the eldest son Pope who is by far the most threatening. There is an echo of psychosis beneath his calm, reasonable manner – displayed with wonderful subtlety by Ben Mendelsohn through offhand comments and seemingly innocuous questioning. He is the Alpha male of the family – everyone else is afraid of him, of his capacity for violence and unpredictable mood swings.
Throughout the film J is mostly silent – the typical monosyllabic Australian teenage boy. But there is great fear and uncertainty in his body language. The only time J really erupts is after he realises that his girlfriend Nicole (played with a wonderful mix of youthful naivety and bravery by Laura Wainwright) is dead – killed by Pope. He weeps violently in the bathroom of Nicole’s family home. After this, however, his blank exterior is restored and he retreats back into himself. He goes to the police for help, but even they cannot protect him. He is on his own, and becomes hardened and tough as a result. He sets up the court case to help his uncles get out of prison, and then returns to the family home. In the film’s final scene J shoots Pope, and then embraces his grandmother. The implication is that life will go on in this household – with Janine, J and his youngest uncle Darren (played by Luke Ford).
The title Animal Kingdom identifies with the wild, untamed nature of J’s family, but also with the crime world of Melbourne in general. Even the police are not to be trusted – it is the survival of the fittest. When Detective Leckie (played by Guy Pearce) tries to reach J with his analogy of the bush, telling J that he is weak and needs protection, J doesn’t believe him. He knows no one can protect him but himself – he cannot escape his place in the family, no matter how badly he wants to. “Everything affects everyone”, Darren tells him.
Over the last few years Australia has produced a number of mostly Melbourne-based crime dramas, such as the Underbelly series, based on true stories. Animal Kingdom, however, is different. While it is certainly a film about crime – with violence, court cases, and police interrogations – Animal Kingdom focuses much more on character and atmosphere than other films of its genre. The majority of the film is set in the family home, rather than out on the streets. The filming is slow and intense, focusing on faces and actions, and the ways each character in the family relates to the others. It is an exploration of how crime families work – an investigation of the psychology of the people that belong to them.
Animal Kingdom runs for 112 minutes. It is rated R for violence, drug content and pervasive language.