Usually when I go to see a film I have a good idea about what it’s going to be like from advanced publicity, reviews etc. All I knew about Animal Kingdom was that it was about a family of bank robbers in modern-day Melbourne (the exact period is a little vague), has an ensemble cast in which the only actor well-known outside Australia was Guy Pearce, had appeared to some acclaim at Sundance and received 8/10 in the Guardian’s summary of reviews. I expected a superior heist-action film and the opening credits, with a montage of unfocused security-camera stills of bank robberies in progress, reinforced this expectation. There was certainly some pretty violent action but, unlike, say, Goodfellas or Heat, it was in short sharp bursts. It turned out to be less a crime-action film, more a gripping psychological thriller. Despite the positive reviews, the early-evening screening I attended was almost empty which is a pity.
Outline – not too many spoilers
Joshua’s mother dies of a heroin overdose and the hapless 17-year-old contacts his grandmother to arrange the funeral. For years his mother had kept him away from her violent criminal brothers but the grandmother welcomes him into the home. The Cody brothers are considering getting out of the bank-robbing business as the police are all over them. The brothers are Darren, the youngest, who is making money in the drug trade in partnership with a crooked cop; Craig, the middle son, who is none too bright but highly excitable, no doubt because he frequently samples the merchandise from his trade; and the oldest, Andrew, who is nicknamed Pope, a psychopathic criminal who is being sought by the police. The brains behind the gang belong to Barry, a family associate who advises Pope to get out of bank-robbing. His preferred option is the stock market but even the grubbier drugs business seems a better bet than carrying on in the old way. Pope doesn’t own nor would he have a clue how to operate a computer to become a stock-broker and considers the drug business as being for sissies. (This exchange reminded me of the one between Stringer Bell in The Wire who wants to move more into ‘legitimate’ business while gang boss Avon Barksdale just wants to be a gangster). Heading the family is the clawingly sentimental but quite vicious mother, Janine Cody. Janine at first seems to be the family skivvy but when her sons are in danger she comes more and more to the fore and becomes a key player in the developing narrative.
The police execute Barry in cold blood and Pope decrees revenge. After more or less forcing Joshua (known as “J”) to go out and steal a car for the job, Pope and his brothers go out and kill two policemen at random. Local detective Leckie (Guy Pearce) enters the story at this point and realises that the way to pin the killing on the Codys is through J. The rest of the film is taken up with the psychological pressure that Pope, aided by a crooked lawyer, exerts on his siblings and nephew, paralleled with Leckie’s hope of bringing J over to his side.
The opening of the film sets the tone. We see J sitting on the sofa watching a game show on television with his mother asleep by his side. She is not in fact sleeping but dead and he has already called the paramedics. The fact that he continues to watch TV could suggest callousness but I think that would be a misreading. He is, in a sense, the protagonist of the film but, at first, a fairly passive one. Director David Michôd gives him a voiceover in the early part of the film, seemingly for expositional reasons. Despite script-writing guru Robert Kee’s dictum that voiceovers are a contentious device for exposition, I find them quite useful when done effectively, for example in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Terence Malick’s Badlands. In fact I thought we might be in for the kind of naïve voiceover we find in that film from Sissy Spacek’s character. J’s is much more dispassionate, cool and calm despite the strange family environment he finds when he moves to his grandmother’s. The voiceover finishes (from memory) after about twenty minutes but it does frame the basic lesson – all criminals come apart – which is fleshed out over the next hour and a half.
Perhaps the best things about the film were the performances. Guy Pearce had a supporting role which he plays with quiet effectiveness but there were, arguably, three standout performances. The first was James Frecheville as J. It was a misleading performance, at first quiet and introverted, not quite allowing us to see where he stands with his family’s activities, first suggesting that nothing much was going on inside his head but later suggesting a sense of shock at the crazy world he has entered. When these activities start to infiltrate his life beyond the family he becomes a more active agent in the drama.
The performances of both Jackie Weever (Janine) and Ben Mendelsohn (Pope) share, in their different ways, a certain kind of creepiness. The character of Janine (for which Jackie Weaver was nominated in the recent Oscars as the Best Supporting Actress) shares certain features with previous fictional criminal mothers such as Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949) (whose son, played by James Cagney, was of course Cody Jarrett – any significance?); Billie Whitelaw as Violet, mother of the ultra-violent twins in The Krays (d. Peter Medak, 1990); and Livia Soprano (Nancy Marchand). The latter prefigures Janine in the way Livia is happy to plot the death of her son as Janine is happy to sacrifice her grandson but unlike the latter she is passionately (almost oedipally – kissing them passionately on the lips) fond of her sons. When they go to jail she displays her ruthlessness and power. Her performance is at its most effective when she is silent, her eyes almost giving her entire performance. A mistress of manipulation, behind her benign smile there is coldness with which she sketches what must happen to J to save her sons, all the while keeping the grandmotherly expression on her face. A chilling performance.
Ben Mendelsohn’s tactile performance as Pope was unsettling from the start. He’s off his medication and is a figure of dangerous unpredictability and ominous impulse. It is not just in the way the character seems at any moment to hit out at whoever displeased him but the way, for example, that he pretends to be a sort of father figure, particularly to the youngest brother Darrell, encouraging him to come out as gay, telling he doesn’t mind but menacingly so as to increase his control over his weak younger brother. One unsettling moment foreshadows Pope’s later horrific treatment of Debbie, J’s 16-year-old-girlfriend. She falls asleep as J is out of the room and carries her into the bedroom, his hands lingering on her legs until J arrives.
One aspect of the film that was at one point causing me problems was the pacing of the narrative. At first, when J arrives at the Codys, I found it difficult to distinguish between the brothers and their associate Barry. Fairly quickly the character of Barry establishes itself, especially as Pope’s entrance is held back. It might have been more effective for Barry to be left a bit longer as a counterweight to Pope so that the death of a potential protector for Josh highlights his vulnerability more dramatically. Later, when the police seemed to be making headway in the case and the killers’ arrest and conviction seemed inevitable, I felt the narrative sagged a little. However, a final act opened up with Janine’s role becoming major and our sympathy for J and anxiety on his behalf (and on behalf of his girlfriend Debbie and her family) being ratcheted up. It slackened off after the trial to be revamped by a triumphant Janine confronting Detective Guy in the supermarket and an explosive ending (which, although I half-guessed was about to happen, nevertheless was a shock.
Finally, much of the atmosphere in the film was conveyed by the music and cinematography. Antony Partos’s austere score was dark, melancholic, tense and menacing. I think I need a further viewing to absorb the mise en scene and cinematography but I was left with an impression of frequent (over-frequent?) slow motion sequences, slow zooms and noirish lighting which combined to create a mood of tragic inevitability.
Here’s the trailer: