A Melbourne teenager goes from frying pan to fire after his heroin-addicted mother overdoses and he is sent to live with his totally Grimm grandmother. David Michôd's explosive feature directing debut Animal Kingdom is a complex narrative that combines a crime thriller with a dysfunctional family drama. More character-driven than action-packed and very deliberately paced, this is a film aimed at an audience willing to be sucked into the family's violent world. The rare crime film that is more for the arthouse than the multiplex, with careful handling by a smart distributor it should rack up healthy iox office numbers.
What 17 year old Joshua "J" Cody (James Frecheville) walks into when he goes to live with his grandmother, Smurf (Jacki Weaver), is not just a family, but a criminal enterprise. Eldest uncle Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) and his best mate, Baz (Joel Edgerton), are armed robbers—although with pickings slim and the corrupt police force on their backs, family man Baz is looking at an exit strategy. Uncle Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is a successful drug dealer, but also his own best customer. The youngest, Darren (Luke Ford), is not much older than J and still determining his place in the family business. All three share a weirdly intimate, symbiotic relationship with their mother, one that has kept them emotionally stunted, so much so that when the cops' pressure on Pope takes a brutal turn, the brothers react without considering the consequences.
Where J fits in all this—and with the world at large—is the question put to him by Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce), a straight-arrow police detective determined to bring the Codys to justice. Strip away the revenge plot that develops and Animal Kingdom asks us all that big question. J is unmoored in this world, a big kid who's never had a parent. His uncles' idea of mentoring is to bring J into their increasingly bloody business. Cheery Smurf sees him at a remove; her sons will always come first. That leaves Baz, his girlfriend Nicky's parents and Leckie as potential parental figures—and all three relationships have their limits.
Michôd worked on his screenplay for eight years and it shows in the complexity and level of detail in his story. This could have been a slick little thriller. Instead, it evolves into the unfolding of an epic tragedy, giving further weight by the exquisite cast. Everyone is excellent with Weaver, Mendelsohn, and Edgerton's haunting performances as stand-outs. Melbourne's gangland has long fascinated the filmmaker, but with this tale and with this ensemble, he has transcended genre. This is a richly satisfying, terrifically accomplished first feature, a calling card that points to Michôd's bright future.
Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver, Sullivan Stapleton, James Frecheville
Director/Screenwriter: David Michôd
Producer: Liz Watts
Running time: 112 minutes
Release date: TBD