Directed by: David Michod
Written by: David Michod
Starring: James Frecheville, Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver, and Ben Mendelsohn
It’s easy to draw parallels between this movie’s title and its application to the crime world; monologues about “survival,” followed by several repeated shot sequences of these characters doing the same thing- carrying prey, guns. We get it, people are just like animals: violent, repetitive and, as it turns out, kind of boring.
Gangster movies are often punctuated with a searing critique of the culture where the gang resides. The Godfather and Goodfellas immortally critiqued the American Dream, and the more recent Gomorrah showed Italy and humanity rotting from the inside out. Lesser gang films often reward the viewer with shocking scenes of violence and perversely profane characters to reward them for sitting through the message. To an extent this is what Animal Kingdom does, though the most interesting characters are the ones who seem normal on the surface (isn’t that always the case?)
Along with the usual suspects- drug dealers, sociopaths, the cowardly brother- a dark force is working behind the scenes, punctuating her sons’ dealings with a “hon” or a “sweetie.” That would be Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody (Jacki Weaver) the unlikely matriarch and leader of this dysfunctional band of idiots and murderers. Her charm is somewhat disarming at first, and director David Michod mostly shows her reaching up to her towering sons to give them a loving peck. Later, as it becomes all too clear who is pulling the strings of these Aussies, her eyes reveal some sort of hidden menace. Weaver is a scene-stealer, not quite Oscar-worthy but a welcome spark to an otherwise dull procedural.
Animal Kingdom has the undesirable qualities of not know which movie it wants to be and having an uninteresting protagonist at its center. Josh Cody (James Frecheville) is sent to live with Janine and her gangster sons after his mother dies. He has not seen them in years because of an alleged fight that took place between his mom and Janine. Once you see the devious acts of murder and unrest in the household, it’s clear she kept her distance for other reasons.
Michod brings a dark and brooding quality to the visuals of the film, which in the end is more dull and boring than anything. The constant slow-building synths in the background can completely ruin a moment. As a morally-superior cop (Guy Pearce) shows up to take Josh under his wing, he must choose between his family and his happiness, and the bellowing chords stalk him like his crazy Uncle Andrew (Ben Mendelsohn).
The movie alternates between gang-banging and cautionary preaching, never reveling in the violence but never finding an interesting story either. As Janine manipulates behind the scenes, you begin to see the promise of a more interesting movie, one without any sympathetic characters at all. Evil with a charming smile is better than good with a boring scowl.