In the “catch it quick before it disappears” category, we have the Australian crime drama Animal Kingdom, which I’m tempted to kick up to four stars simply for the wide array of responses I had to the film while watching it. I went from mild curiosity to utter ennui to sudden appalled fascination to outright shock over the course of the movie. That’s notable in itself, but not quite notable enough to forget that slab of time I spent only wanting the movie to get on with it. When it finally did, I was impressed—but it didn’t remove the memory of the other parts.
This is a generational gangster picture focusing on the low-rent Cody family—and considering the pathological nature of this clan, I suspect the name was chosen as an homage to James Cagney’s Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949). These folks, however, make Cody Jarrett and Ma Jarrett (Margaret Wycherly) look relatively normal. Relatively. Yet the Cody family themselves almost seem normal at first glance—a regular family living in the suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. The thing is that they’re anything but, and the trick that lies beneath the surface is that even what appears normal very probably isn’t. Looking at the film in hindsight, it’s possible to see that is what the movie is setting up in its first scene.
Animal Kingdom starts with paramedics arriving on the scene to deal with the heroin overdose of the mother of 17-year-old Joshua “J” Cody, who is impressively impassive in his approach to the event. In fact, he barely tears himself away from the inane TV show he is watching. He is also remarkably emotionless as concerns meeting his estranged grandmother, Janine “Smurf” Cody (Jacki Weaver), who is more than happy to take him in as part of the group of “boys” she presides over in a matriarchal fashion that’s simultaneously unwholesomely sexual.
It’s a semi-functional group that is more or less headed up by Andrew “Pope” Cody (Ben Mendelsohn, Australia), who—as is often the case in this film—at first seems pretty innocuous, but becomes more obviously unhinged and dangerous as the movie progresses. Indeed, the most unsettling thing about the character stems from his attempts to force himself on other family members—notably “J” and Darren (Luke Ford, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor)—as a kind of creepy father figure to whom they should feel comfortable telling anything. No matter how disturbed anyone is, no one is sufficiently disturbed to take up that offer.
The action primarily results from the police killing of clan member Barry Brown (Joel Edgerton), which prompts a revenge killing against the cops—and the expected fallout from that. It should be noted that the police seem to be only marginally better than the gangsters, with the exception of a detective named Leckie (Guy Pearce), who, unfortunately, is totally ineffectual. The problem really surfaces when “Pope” starts not trusting the reliability of “J” to hold up under pressure, which leads to the film’s final—and most effective—section.
When it’s at its best, Animal Kingdom is a sharp—and sometimes quite brutal—thriller. It isn’t very stylish. Visually, it pretty much follows a take-it-or-leave-it approach, but that suits the grittiness of the material. The thing is that the film isn’t always at its best. Still, the payoff is probably worth the dull-ish patches, if you like the crime genre. Rated R for violence, drug content and pervasive language.