You have to feel sorry for a film like Animal Kingdom. This appealing Downunderworld crime thriller has all the makings of a post-modern noir. We’ve got the unusual setting (Australia’s outlaw aura circa the late ’80s), a felonious family loaded with craven characterization, a police squad both sworn to protect the law but using any and all means – legal or not – to get the job down, and an orphaned teenager who is introduced to the seedier slice of Ozzy life. Taken together, we’ve got the Melbourne version of Mean Streets, a true life look at how cops and robbers played out in a land far away from the usual Tinseltown take.
Except, there really isn’t much that’s new or novel here. When his mother passes away from a heroin overdose, young Joshua “J” Cody is taken in by his enigmatic maternal grandmother Janine the “Smurf”. She rules the roost in her small suburban home, guiding her criminally minded sons Andrew/”Pope”, Barry/”Baz”, Darren, and Craig through their various nefarious paces. They rob banks, and they are very good at it. On the right side of the badge is Leckie, a well meaning policeman who must contend with the criminals as well as the ‘shoot to kill’ antics of his cowboy compatriots. When one of the Codys is killed, Pope decides to get revenge. His actions get the department in a uproar, and force Leckie to zero in on “J” and his underage gal pal Nicky. If he can turn them, he can put the Codys away for a very long time indeed.
Thus we begin the cinematic pity party. There are so many good elements about David Michôd’s feature film debut that when it fails to make a substantial impact, the remorse overwhelms you. From the finely tuned performances – especially by sinister she-creature Jacki Weaver – to the grit and prison tattoo tendencies of the clan, there is much here to appreciate. As a matter of fact, it’s safe to say that Animal Kingdom is unlike any recent Australian film in that it walks a fine line between the Ozploitation of the countries early motion picture stakes and the regular Hollywood helping of hero and villains. Spice it up with a bit of indie atmosphere and a bit of spatter here and there and you’ve got something that should really sizzle.
Instead, Animal Kingdom consistently underachieves. Even when a main character is suddenly gunned down, we fail to feel the sequence’s full force. This happens a lot in the film, times when something that’s happening should make us feel more: more horrified; more sickened; more scared. Michôd has a decent way with suspense, especially with an unpredictably evil character like Pope hanging around. But you can sense that he sees aspects of everyday dread here that most will miss. The Codys are indeed a terror – what they do implies an entire lifetime spent in service of the most baser human instincts. But we get little of said scandal up on the screen. Instead, Mama Smurf shouts her boys down, and with one or two exception, they scurry off like the scared pups they are.
Maybe if we had a stronger lead we could get more involved. Young James Frecheville may have the body of an adult, but his mannerism is one of someone slightly stunted, perhaps even handicapped. His eyes are too close together and set too far back in his skull to look smart or serious. Instead, he’s often a clueless cog in a machine managing quite well without his lunkheaded looks. The same applies for the sensitive member of the clan, Darren (played by Luke Ford). Questioned about his sexuality to the point of distraction and reluctant to really get involved, he’s another weak link in a rather ripe anti-social chain. That just leaves other “brothers” Joel Edgerton and Sullivan Stapleton to pick up the slack, but compared to Ben Mendelsohn’s Pope, they’re lightweights.
It could also be the story, the typical tale of bad guys taking things way too personally and pulling the trigger when something a little more subtle (or strategic) would do. Granted, the payback is definitely warranted, but such brutish tactics are guaranteed to do little except up the fatalistic ante by several pissed off policemen. Pope’s unbridled psychosis, matched with his sibling’s sheepish allegiance, guarantees a lot of cat and mouse, but Michôd fails to make good use of it. This is especially true as we watch the pervert leer sickeningly at “J”‘s joyriding girlfriend. Instead, sequences are set up and then play out passively, our attention wandering as guns are drawn and bullets fly. We are so used to the new breed of handgun bombast that to see something this ‘soft’ truly flummoxes our expectations.
And yet there is something unnerving about the whole experience, something suggesting a better film bubbling beneath the surface. Told through the eyes of a bored, directionless child and taken to Tarantino like heights of interpersonal horror, Michôd could have made a minor masterwork. All he needed to do was dial down the broiling aimless swelter of the Aussie locales and, instead, delivering the kind of punk gut kick daring that drives such storylines. We want Mama Smurf to be more like the Matron Firefly (from Devil’s Rejects) and less like a impish rogue with a smile full of sinister choppers. Pope is horrific, but the rest of his relatives represent various stages of near non-existence. Nothing is wholly fleshed out here. Instead, insinuation rules – and rues – the day.
That is why Animal Kingdom deserves to be more pitied than scorned. It’s not as if Michôd has nothing to work with – it’s just that he doesn’t quite know what to do with all the pieces. As the plot percolates along, as Guy Pearce’s macho man moustache makes him look less like a cop and more like a Village People interpretation of same, we struggle to see something other than your typical tale of crime not paying very well. People die, blood oaths are sworn, and characters we clearly don’t understand confuse us even further. As the opening credit sequence shot suggests, there is a pecking order to the natural world. In the cinematic domain, this movie is clearly not king.