The crime family drama has been a deep well indeed since Rocco and His Brothers spawned innumerable films of varying quality. Pop culture has been so penetrated by this phenomenon that it is impossible to craft such a film without stumbling through myriad cliches from the obligate colorful characters to the inevitable purging of the ranks after betrayals. Yet despite this handicap, Animal Kingdom comes off as intriguing and ultimately an absorbing work. This is the first feature for David Michod, and is expertly directed with some truly inspired performances. What makes this a winner is that it treads upon well-worn ground in a surprisingly straightforward way. The characters are not philosophical nor implausibly articulate – they are a family of professional thieves and not terribly bright. They are also not the ‘best’, as most crime films tend to boast as a focus. They are just surviving, showing little flash, and seemed trapped in their house as the brutal Armed Robbery Squad executes criminals they are unable or uninclined to prosecute. The story is well crafted, and does not hammer any points home, nor does it reach beyond its means to even make a point. Kingdom is content to cast a pall of disquiet, and lock the door behind you.
In a way, it resembles the last third of any Scorsese film as the Cody family begins to crumble under increasing pressure by the police, who make no secret of their willingness to murder whomever they want. Baz is the charismatic leader of the family, with a stable head and steady hand, longing to eventually leave the game. Pope Cody is off his meds and in hiding as the primary target of homicidal and faceless cops. He is a particularly unsettling presence as he looks at you, then through you, probing with bizarrely irrelevant questions to decide whether to let you live. Darren is a easily swayed moron, but dependable enough. Craig sells drugs and banks the proceeds, but is unstable and paranoid, and losing control of his drug habits. The heart of the clan is Janine, the deceptively clever mother who loves her boys with emotions that stray well into Oedipal territory. We are introduced to Joshua in a revelatory opening scene in which he watches a game show on TV waiting for the paramedics to take away his mother in her last of evidently many heroin overdoses. The Cody family are under siege, with death threats from the police a daily occurrence. Joshua is dimwitted and nearly mute, but as they are surrounded by enemies, family must trust in family and the idiot becomes a part of the action. The police focus on Joshua as a potential rat, and he seems willing enough as he lived separate from these thieves all his life. His mother may have been an addict, but justifiably lived in fear of her clan.
This sounds like a setup to a story you have seen many times before, and I settled in for what I thought would be a fairly predictable romp with exciting heist and police procedurals. I was gratified to be proven wrong fairly early on, as it became clear there would be no real ‘main’ character immune from being dumped by the story. There would be no brilliantly constructed plans, and no expertly written monologues. What we are left with is a raw and thoughtful downward spiral as tough career criminals live in fear, react in panic, and obey their behavioral codes in ways we can expect flawed human beings to do. Surprisingly, having the preternaturally thick Joshua as a central character was not a handicap or a symptom of a weak screenplay. He is a uniquely passive character for a movie, almost a stand in for a silent camera, a witness for the caustic decay that is created in a family that lives off crime. This actually becomes essential to the plot, and thankfully the dumbass remains so in the face of an attempt at redemption. Even with Janine as the fiercely dedicated lynch-pin, they are falling apart as the family holds together. Even without the drug use and homicidal cops across the street, they are living underground, and as such cannot truly trust one another. This idea is hardly a new one, but Animal Kingdom presents it with a new energy and a propulsive narrative that keeps you off balance with subtle twists organically issuing forth from human behavior.
The ‘Animal Kingdom’ metaphor is apt enough, and the film stays true to the idea throughout. There is no real action here, and no distracting setpieces. There is the long, slow, steady grind that progressively crushes everyone involved. In the war of evolution, individuals and species fight for survival by niche; by being the fastest, strongest, or most clever. This does not hold true for individuals over time, however. Even those strong enough to survive may lose the long game by a matter of luck – nature is not sympathetic. The only law is that of eventual death, for all players involved. It is fascinating to see a war between cops and criminals where both sides appear to acknowledge their own team is destined for failure. The lead investigator (played by Guy Pierce) is dedicated to his job, but his weary eyes betray a sense of doom for his desire for justice. Janine, as played by Jacki Weaver, is stunning in her portrayal as a cool-headed matriarch who can stand watching her family fall to pieces only with a fanatical optimism that all will be well if a few of them can weather the storm. She shows flashes of Angela Lansbury with her diabolical wit and incestuous attachment to her brood.
Though the bare bones of the story is overly familiar, Animal Kingdom is a fascinating work that envelopes you in a miasma of dread. At no time are you presented with a character that is sympathetic (though Baz comes close), yet all the same you are sucked in and left to wonder what will come next. Even the narraration by Joshua, the ultimate in movie ciphers, explains nothing and is what one would expect from an empty-headed teenager. Even those events you can see coming, they are played straight and true, so there is no loss of impact. This is a stylish work that seems to lack the superficial style of other, lesser crime films. For example, the story includes a trial and a funeral, and neither have a scene. Such obvious sources of drama are eschewed in favor of scenes of drudgery in the living room . Such choices like these and the use of an inert protagonist would seem disastrous, but Michod turns them into opportunities. Witnessing Joshua do almost nothing with his toxic world deteriorating about him creates an intense feeling of helplessness. And this emotion becomes more intense with time, so that action of any sort would likely only worsen circumstances. A fitting impression, as anyone born into this family under the maniacal gaze of Janine would be best served by quiet strangulation in the crib.