Title: Animal Kingdom
Directed By: David Michod
Starring: Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver, Sullivan Stapleton, James Frencheville
Since when did a barrage of bullets make a crime drama a winner? Hollywood might saturate our theaters with implausible film after film where heroes narrowly escape machinegun fire or every character unites for a grand finale shootout, but apparently that hasn’t consumed the Australian film industry. In writer-director David Michod’s Animal Kingdom we get the genre antithesis, a film lacking action that builds its tension through smart writing, excellent performances and calculated pacing.
Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) is an armed robber in hiding, his brother Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is making a killing selling drugs and the youngest, Darren (Luke Ford), is just along for the ride lending a hand when necessary. So is life in the Cody family, a well-known clan in the criminal underground of Melbourne, Australia. When the boys’ nephew, J (James Frencheville), loses his mother to a heroin overdose, their mother, Smurf (Jackie Weaver), brings him into their home and ultimately into their dangerous lifestyle. The Cody brothers and Pope’s longtime friend and partner, Baz (Joel Edgerton), help J assimilate, teaching him vital lessons, most importantly how to let others know who’s king.
When a squad of rouge detectives makes a deadly move, the Codys are left in a tense situation. Their choice to retaliate puts them at risk of being killed by a group of trigger-happy cops eager to blow them to bits. J’s new source of love and warmth quickly becomes an unstable environment putting his life at risk. One cop, Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce), hopes to coax J into forfeiting information in exchange for safety, but J soon discovers that not even the law can provide protection in this realm; he has to find out where he fits in for himself.
Animal Kingdom relies on its tension, its tension relies on the deliberate pacing and that pacing is extremely slow. Pauses are long and pans are dramatic, likely to make some eyelids heavy. This would have been a killer even in the vicious world of Animal Kingdom, but the film’s vast assets, including a powerful climax earn Michod a get out of jail free card.
Other than moving at a snail’s pace, the story is fantastic. Every Cody is curiously complex in his or her own way. Craig’s erratic behavior makes for instant tension any moment he’s on screen while Darren’s more timid personality earns compassion. Smurf and Pope are the most notable of the bunch. From the moment Smurf embraces J post mommy’s OD, you find as much comfort in her loving character as J does, but there’s a lot more to this matriarch than you expect making for one of the film’s best twists. Pope shines through his ominous peculiarity. He’s the Cody’s ticking time bomb without a conscience. His brash behavior keeps the suspense high throughout the film. What Stapleton and Edgerton are able to accomplish in their limited screen time is astounding, but Weaver and Mendelsohn steal the film.
Animal Kingdom‘s most bland element is its hero, J. If the role called for a soft-spoken guy who never smiles, newcomer Frencheville nailed it. J doesn’t do much, but walks us through the story. He rarely does anything profound himself, rather takes us through the film leading us to his co-cast’s noteworthy moments. But even though J isn’t an exciting guy to watch, Frencheville still manages to make him believable. J is certainly not an emotional guy, not even shedding a tear after his mother’s passing, yet we always know where his head is at through Frencheville’s minimalist yet appropriate performance.
Another oddly fitting facet is the pacing. Yes, Animal Kingdom slows almost to the point of boredom, but it’s hard to imagine the tension accumulating quite as much otherwise. Rather than go the action route packing Animal Kingdom with shootouts and brawls, Michod maintains a more subdued tone making the events more horrifying than thrilling. At times, particularly in the first third of the film, a handful of lengthy shots could have used some trimming, but as we delve into the meatier portion of the plot, the slow pace transforms from tiresome fluff into an anxiety inducer.
Animal Kingdom isn’t your typical crime story. It relies on the performances rather than the action and those performances are some of the best of the year. And the cast’s work wouldn’t have been nearly as profound if it weren’t for Michod’s well thought out script. Animal Kingdom is the result of many years of work from Michod and it shows. David, thank you for putting so much time and effort into this production. The relief from the cliché grandiose shootout-heavy films is greatly appreciated.
By Perri Nemiroff