If there’s one movie genre that resonates with moviegoers it’s crime drama. People are always interested in the seedy underbelly of society and the denizens that come from that reality to terrorize the more civilized world. While the best crime dramas are typically big budget affairs that involve large casts and a story that sprawls across years, Animal Kingdom proves that the opposite of those characteristics can also compose a satisfying film that only sometimes feels a little small.
In Melbourne, the Cody brothers, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford) form a gang of bank robbers with Pope’s best friend, Barry (Joel Edgerton). The men are watched over and cared for by the Cody matriarch Smurf (Jacki Weaver). As the heat turns up, Pope goes into hiding and police stake out the family home, biding their time until the Cody family makes a mistake. Into this perilous and tense world comes Joshua (James Frecheville), the estranged nephew to the Cody boys ever since their sister took her son away to free him from the criminal life. When renegade police officers murder Barry, the fragile balance within the Cody boys’ lives is destroyed, forcing them to retaliate and catching Joshua in the crossfire. When Joshua realizes that he and those he holds dear are in real danger, he turns to senior police officer Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce) who has to convince Joshua that turning on his family is the only way to ensure peace. Now Joshua must decide where his allegiances lie and which path he should follow.
Animal Kingdom is a great achievement in that it proves a big budget isn’t necessary to convey the grittiness of criminal life or the savagery with which criminals commit their acts. Writer/director David Michôd wisely sets up the Cody brothers’ criminal history in the opening credit sequence via a number of still images taken from closed circuit video from inside banks being robbed. The effect is surprisingly effective and chilling. Beyond that, there’s actually very little organized crime committed, but anything more would have been superfluous and only slowed down the rest of the story.
The roles are all very well written and acted and each character is distinct and multi-layered. Barry, who is obviously the level-headed member of the gang, is a family man who wants to go legitimate. So it makes sense that his death would lead to drastic behavior among the Cody brothers. While Sullivan Stapleton and Luke Ford turn in fine performances and behave the way viewers will expect them to, it’s Ben Mendelsohn’s acting that will chill audiences. His ability to give tense, deadpan expressions is frightening because one never knows exactly what he’s thinking. His gaze never leaves his object’s personal space and when he reacts it’s usually in an explosive manner. Watching Mendelsohn perform is both intriguing and uncomfortable. Newcomer James Frecheville is satisfactory in his role as the protagonist, although he does appear to be a little wooden for the majority of the film. Only when he discovers the death of someone close to him does his ability to express deep emotion shine, but little touches, like keeping his attention on a game show while paramedics attend to his dying mother early on, remind audiences that he’s still acting rather than just reciting lines.
The limited budget doesn’t hamper the film too much, but at times the movie does feel smaller than one would expect. The story doesn’t span across too many sets and the violence is mostly suggested rather than explicit – though the suggestion is very heavy. An important courtroom scene is cut out, leaving audiences to fill in the blank. Finally, another scene features police officers storming a home, but mostly only in audio. While these aspects don’t necessarily detract from the film, it seems like these choices were made out of necessity rather than true creative freedom.
The pacing is a little slower and the scale is a little smaller than what fans of crime drama may come to expect, but there’s still plenty to enjoy here. The writing and acting are very strong throughout and the deaths are sudden and shocking. The only real issue U.S. audiences may have with Animal Kingdom is the lack of crime to help balance out the drama. Nevertheless, fans of crime drama will have a satisfying experience despite the film’s handful of shortcomings.