Animal Kingdom

The underbelly of the Cody crime family in Melbourne is the focus of writer David Michôd’s directorial debut. There is nary a lick of originality in this story and enough cliché to choke a horse’s head in a bed. Michôd has clearly never met a gangster movie meme he didn’t like, as nearly all of them are here.

Our protagonist Josh (or “J,” as he’s referred to) sits on the couch watching “Deal or No Deal” in his Melbourne apartment, a woman seemingly asleep next to him. Suddenly the paramedics show up and he explains that she is his mother and has OD’d on heroin. He delivers this information (and the ensuing call to his grandmother to deliver the news) with the same emotion one would expect from someone asking you to pass the salt at the dinner table. As played by newcomer James Frecheville, J is a blank slate, an expressionless face aboard an oafish, man-child of a body. At one point J says, about an automatic hand dryer, “I’m invisible to these things, no one notices me.” It’s meant to be a metaphor for J’s progression in this story but it’s more ironic than anything; he barely registers to the viewer as a character.

J’s mother’s death is his reintroduction to the Cody clan and, by the same token, ours. The gamut of types are all represented in J’s uncles: Darren (Luke Ford), the youngest (only a few years older than J himself), the timid one, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), all coked out and crazy (and channeling and looking like early Russell Crowe, pre-Hollywood days), and Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), the oldest, the most evil and currently on the lam, with police daily stalking the Cody house (led by Guy Pearce, apparently the only noble cop in the city) in hopes of apprehending him. Then there’s J’s diminutive grandmother Janine (also called “Smurf” and played by Jacki Weaver), the malevolent matriarch of mayhem, a sort of sinister Brigitte Bardot from down under. She is the film’s (near) saving grace; hers is a stunning, scary and savage performance that is unveiled slowly and with the utmost of ominous underpinnings.

Close family friend Barry “Baz” Brown wants out of the business. He’s been using his earnings from the criminal enterprise to do well in the stock market (this is the 80s, when the gettin’ was still good). He’s also been the de facto father figure to J, offering him sage advice like “wash your hands if you touch your cock or ass.” Since we’ve seen every gangster film ever, we know this means Baz isn’t long for this world. While it comes as no surprise that he meets an early end, the nature of his dispatch is unexpected. Not in an “a-ha!” way but more in a “wtf” way.

Slowly but surely, J is drawn into the family’s lifestyle in a series of tests, each escalating his compliance and participation. We never actually get an idea of the breadth of the Cody clan or their place in Melbourne as a crime syndicate. Theirs is such an insular life and Michôd doesn’t give us much more than feeble exposition to putter us along. What we do get is a continuing one-upmanship between the Codys and the police that ramps up the violence and severity. When officer Leckie (Pearce) offers J immunity and witness protection against his family, the situation intensifies as everyone scrambles for safety and for J’s allegiance. This would all be suspenseful and engrossing drama if it weren’t for the poor lead up and pretentious symbolism (there is actually a scene of a slow motion pan to Air Supply’s “All Out of Love,” yikes) and the utter disengagement of Frecheville’s J. When J begins to take his future and the future of his family into his own hands it’s too late to sympathize or empathize with a realization that’s come too late and a resolution that is actually counterproductive.

There is a great story in here somewhere. As it is, it’s a disconnected series of events that don’t cohere and don’t offer anything new to the genre. Still, Weaver’s performance (and character) are among the best of the year.