Atmospheric. That’s probably the best way to describe director David Michod’s Australian gangster flick Animal Kingdom. In telling the story of Joshua ‘J’ Cody (newcomer James Frecheville) and his entry into a world of armed robbery, drugs and murder, Michod has created a tense atmosphere within his film akin to the likes of The Departed. Hyper-violent at times, meticulously developed at others, Animal Kingdom is vicious tale that is unrelenting in the way it builds tension and explodes to a thrilling climax.
The film begins with a somber, if not peculiar scene. Young Josh is sitting on the couch next to his sleeping mother, watching ‘Deal or No Deal’ on television. Moments later, the silent, emotionless Josh is greeted by paramedics, who are there to collect his mother. As it turns out, she’s overdosed on heroin and has been dead all along. This brilliantly crafted five minute scene tells us what we need to know about the disaffected Josh. We can also see that while he remains emotionless, he’s far from handling things well. He calls his grandmother (Jacki Weaver), who comes to take him to live with her and his uncles. At this point we discover (through Josh’s narration) that he mother has kept him from his uncles for one specific reason: they’re a dangerous bunch.
Josh falls easily into the care of his uncles Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford), who are working with their business partner Barry ‘Baz’ Brown (Joel Edgerton) to protect their eldest brother, the heinous Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) from the police. For Pope, the heat is on and hiding is the only way to survive. That is, until the police escalate the situation by savagely murdering someone within the family. From there, revenge is afoot and Pope will clearly stop at nothing to take down the police’s armed robbery division, led by senior officer Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce).
As you might imagine, Josh gets caught right in the middle of the conflict, forced to chose between his dangerous family and doing the right thing. He quickly realizes that the only way to survive is to learn how to play the game. To learn how to show everyone else who’s king.
All-in-all, the story seems secondary to the condition of this movie. One of intense, haunting and anxious moments. The combination of often intimate cinematography and a haunting score from composer Jo Ford. Every ounce of this movie serves its general purpose: to create an intense, unflinching atmosphere that feels as if it may crush Josh at any moment. Also looking to crush Josh at any moment are his uncle Pope — who is played brilliant and creepily by Ben Mendelsohn — and his grandmother, who is quite possibly one of the best-developed characters I’ve seen during this entire festival. As her character begins to show herself to the audience, Jacki Weaver shows that there’s a fire burning underneath the surface. And all at once, the seemingly sweet grandmother comes full circle as something far more daunting, and far more dangerous.
Striking a perfect balance between moments of hyper-violence and gut-wrenching drama, Animal Kingdom proves itself to be a well-rounded, unrelenting thriller that holds tight and squeezes all the way to the final credits. Riding high on strong performances and a director with a strong vision and eye for execution, it is a film that lives up to its title — just as vicious as one might expect from a movie that is constantly evocative of the natural order of things.