Animal Kingdom is the gripping story of a criminal family in Melbourne who survive by drug deals, bank robberies and inside informants in the Drug Crimes Unit. For simplicity, here is a helpful family tree:
When 17 year old J’s mum dies of a heroin overdose his grandmother takes him back in to live with her and his three uncles. Even from the opening scene, when J sits calmly next to his dead mother on the sofa waiting for the ambulance to arrive, it’s obvious J isn’t shocked by this development and his mother was a regular user. When we meet the rest of the Cody family we understand why, yet despite this J is never seen taking drugs.
Set in Melbourne the city is not intrinsic to Animal Kingdom‘s story, nor is the unclassified year its set in; the centre of the film is the family. J isn’t a character you instantly connect with despite his sorrowful entrance, but his character is slowly built up over the course of the 113 minute film and towards the end we begin to care less about what happens to any of the other characters, as long as J finds peace and contentment. As director and writer David Michôd explains his casting choice in the DVD extra features, he initially felt the audience wouldn’t relate to J because he doesn’t look like a 17 year old boy (despite the fact that James is). He looks older, and therefore both the characters and the audience would expect him to deal with adult situations. This is both a pro and con in the casting in that J fits into the world of family crime in appearance, but equally the audience lacks sympathy for him because of this.
The film explores the consensus that all criminals eventually become unravelled, and this is certainly what happens as the ongoing battle between the Cody family and the police comes to a head. The aptly named film title shows peoples place in life in terms of weak or strong creatures, and how those that are weak can only survive by surrounding themselves around the strong. J finds himself balanced between the two. J himself is weak; he has very little control of what is currently happening in his life and gets told what to say or do by his uncles (or their lawyer). Because of this J’s loyalty to his family is increased by his desire to be protected by his family that he views as strong, but in actuality his family is beginning to unravel faster than they realise. Meanwhile Detective Leckie, played by the wonderful Guy Pearce, is trying to convince J that the police are the strong creatures in this game and they are the only ones who can protect him. J finds himself torn between a loyalty to his family and his desire to be protected, from whichever source that is.
There are two actors that make this film. Firstly is Ben Mendelsohn who plays J’s uncle Pope, a mentally unstable rogue who used to be at the top of his game when bank robberies were the easiest way to make fast cash, but finds himself unable to adapt to new ways of crime. Pope is almost jittery, never content and always worrying about being one step ahead (one of the most unnerving scenes in the film is a close up of Pope curiously watching J, his eyes almost crazy). The second actor is Guy Pearce who flaunts his moustache in the face of danger as Detective Leckie, a button down type Detective who plays the friendly good cop to try and convince J to place his trust in him. The relationship between the two feels more like a mentorship than any of J’s relationships with his Uncle’s, and without any positive male role models it seems incredibly important that J have one person he can believe in.
Another stand out role is Jacki Weaver as grand/mother to the boys. For most of the film she appears so innocent, constantly baking or demanding hugs and kisses from her sons and never seeming to be involved in any of the criminal activity. This all changes dramatically when she faces the prospect of losing her sons and a very strong, smart and manipulative side appears as we suddenly realise that she is completely in control, having brought up and raised a family of criminal sons whilst never implicating herself.
The film is slow at times and it does feel that certain scenes could be taken out without any loss to the plot, but equally the pace is slowed down so that the tension effectively increases dramatically. Animal Kingdom is an engaging and dramatically gripping film that for Mechôd’s first feature is fantastic, and with his next film the upcoming Hesher starring Joseph Gorden Levitt I’m exciting to see what the future of his director holds.
Interviews: The extras include a 5 minute interview with all the major cast members and the director explaining what drew them to this film, the role of their character and what the audience should take away from the experience. There isn’t quite enough of the James Frecheville interview but the Pearce and Mendelsohn interviews are certainly worth watching.
The Making Of: An hour long look at the making of spanning from casting and rehearsals to filming. Learning that Animal Kingdom was 8 years in the making is certainly a shock to learn, but as it was Mechôd’s first feature this is also understandable. What I found particularly interesting was the casting decisions and how they selected each actors for their role. Some seemed instantaneous like Pearce and Weaver, but the search for the actor to play J spanned hundreds of auditions lasting right up until two weeks before filming. Mechôd also explains in more detail how the story of Animal Kingdom came to him and all the ideas and themes he hoped to put across that the audience could walk away with. A wonderfully in depth further look into the minds and talents behind the film.
Animal Kingdom is released on DVD and Blu-ray on July 11th – pre order it here