J (James Frecheville) is 17-years-old, tall and awkward in his body. When Animal Kingdom begins, his mother, a heroin addict, is dead on the couch, tended by paramedics. The light is harsh, the walls smudgy. The camera keeps a low-key, medium distance on J’s reaction, un-shocked, a little exhausted. She was a bad mother, no doubt. But now, what’s the kid supposed to do?
None of this rather dire dilemma comes up in dialogue or even in action. Instead, J waits a while, then calls his grandmother, Smurf (Jacki Weaver), who hasn’t spoken to his mother for years. She’s not even sure who he is when he calls, but he tells her what he knows: “Mom’s gone. And she’s dead. I probably should have said it a bit slower,” he mumbles. “I blurted it out.” Smurf—still just a voice on the end of the line—assures him, “I’m coming to get you.” He can’t possibly know what this will mean.
J’s arrival at Smurf’s home bodes odd, if not outright ill. On the wall of her den, she keeps a pride of lions in a frame, a raised, cheap, ugly image on which the camera lingers. And yes, she keeps her own pride: she lives among her sons, brutish, angry un-grown men who rob and kill for a living. They lounge at her kitchen table, tense and uncouth, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) manifestly sociopathic and quick to detonate, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) less visibly fierce, more apparently out of control, an addict and a dealer. And Darren (Luke Ford), the youngest, is restive and insecure, the baby boy in perpetual need of his mother’s protection. J’s voiceover helps you understand what you’re looking at, in this kitchen full of thugs: “Mum kept me away from her family because she was scared. I didn’t realize it at the time, but think they were all scared.”
“At the time,” as J looks back, is full of uncertainty. He tries moment by moment to parse his new environment, to participate just enough to feel included, part of Smurf’s family. But he also maintains a sense of edgy distance, which grants you a relatively moral position, or at least a way to feel different from these egregious outlaws. The complication is that J has no options. For the authorities, it turns out in this film, based on writer-director David Michôd’s research into Melbourne’s underground economy, are as corrupt as the criminals. As the film lays out, both groups engage in outsized-ego competitions, their clashes—spastic shootouts and gory crime scenes—leading to celebrity and self-delusion.
Smurf’s boys have cultivated a rather particular unlawful niche, tit-for-tatting with cops who endeavor to teach them lessons, either by arrest or assassination. The family’s criminal partner, Baz (Joel Edgerton), decides to try out a less bloody, though equally brutal pursuit of wealth (when he reveals to Pope that he wants to get into stocks trading, Pope is bewildered: “I don’t have a computer,” he whines). And so the brothers choose to press on, unable even to imagine another way of life. But this means they’ve lost a relatively cool head for their scheming, and their violence—in particular their competition with the police—escalates.
Trying to negotiate his own place, to be both outsider and insider, J now faces a situation at one more urgent and exponentially more complex. Even if his loony uncles believe they can win against superior firepower and legal maneuverings, J intuits the no-exit end. And so he tries to keep his impossible balance: during the days he goes to high school, and after school he heads off to scout a job with one of his uncles. At school, he meets a lovely classmate, Nicky (Laura Wheelright), who has no idea where he’s come from, and after school, he’s picked up by Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce), who knows exactly where he’s living and means to do something about it.
Leckie stands in some contrast to the other policemen, who appear to be as mad and loutish as any of their targets. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, Leckie assures J he can look out for him, protect him not only from the police who want to abuse him abut also the relatives who want to consume him. J’s inclined to believe him: as damaged as his mother may have been, apparently she did instill in him a sense of right and wrong, or at least a gentleness and empathy conspicuously absent in Smurf’s household.
And yet he sees each day that right and wrong don’t matter in this “animal kingdom,” where survival is a function of power and guile. J’s still figuring out how to front both. When the cops interrogate him concerning a payback murder, he knows enough to say nothing, or maybe just admit to the lesser offense: “I’ve been smoking a fair amount lately,” he mutters, “So my memory’s pretty fucked.” It’s a clumsy effort, but effective enough in this clumsy moment. They agree to end the interview, “right now.” But such unclever subterfuge can’t possibly be sustained, by J, by the police, or, as it turns out, by the increasingly frightening Smurf.
For, as J soon comes to understand, the monstrous sons are logical extensions of their mother, who keeps them close even as she seems to send them off to do battle, to win, to possess and command. J’s mother was scared for good reason. During one remarkable scene in a supermarket—that most apparently banal of environments—Smurf approaches Leckie and quietly, confidently menaces him. He keeps his cool, J doesn’t even see the exchange. But you know now what they’re both up against.