Animal Kingdom isn’t the David Attenborough documentary that the title might imply but a tense and well-plotted Australian gangster drama, which has more tension than the thumb screw collection of the Amsterdam Torture Museum.
Following the death of his mother from a heroin overdose, 17-year old J (James Frecheville) is taken under the wing of his grandmother Smurf (Jackie Weaver) and his uncles, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), Darren (Luke Ford) and Andrew (Ben Mendelsohn), better known by his more sinister nickname Pope.
J quickly realises that his extended family are hardened criminals hunted by the police Armed Robbery Squad, a unit they fear because of their policy of shooting first and asking questions later. Pope is of particular interest to them and consequently he’s in hiding while the family are constantly being rattled by the persistent surveillance of police detective Leckie (Guy Pearce).
But with J’s new girlfriend constant hanging round the house, Pope’s return, the killing of one of their close associates and the gang’s retaliatory attacks on two police officers, tensions rapidly start to escalate and J has to make a choice about where his loyalties lie.
Animal Kingdom is unbelievably tense. Writer and first-time Director David Michôd manages to squeeze menace out of every second of footage; there’s a constant apprehension that something bad could happen at any minute. At the same time, it completely eschews the glamorisation of gangster lifestyle that is so common to this genre of film – crime is violent, brutal and rarely has a happy ending.
The performances across the board are superb. Initially newcomer James Frecheville seems stiff (in fact, at first I thought his character might be mentally retarded) – he’s quiet, introspective and curiously impassive but as his family’s true colours become apparent, it’s clear that it’s a perfectly natural reaction for a young man who gradually comes to realise that his own family might turn on its weakest member if threatened.
Ben Mendohlsson excels as Pope – a man with a slight frame but a calm detachment and a cruel glint in his eyes that exudes malice. If proof were ever needed that madness is more terrifying than toughness, then look no further. When Pope’s in the room, there’s automatically unease; he sits completely relaxed and almost oblivious to the tensions he’s creating while everyone instinctively watches their words; he’s the undisputed king of Animal Kingdom’s jungle.
Presiding over her tribe is Smurf Cody, a totally amoral matriarch who will do anything to protect “her boys”. Jackie Weaver fully deserves her Oscar nomination as she manages to make Smurf, if anything, even more terrifying than Pope. She’s outwardly a smiling optimist, able to put a positive spin on the direst of situations but her sweetness belies the unhinged cruelty that infects her sons.
Animal Kingdom is a superb, tense, extremely well written Australian gangster drama, which wisely avoids overt displays of explicit physical violence but instead revels in the psychological pressure and emotional bullying of its villains. With superb performances all round, great cinematography from Adam Arkapaw and a sharp script, it’s a welcome addition to the genre.