|Animal Kingdom | Written and Directed by David Michôd | with James Frecheville, Jacki Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Sullivan Stapleton, Guy Pearce, and Laura Wheelwright | Sony Classics Films | 105 minutes|
You wouldn't think life could get much more dismal than the family setting depicted in the opening scene of Australian director David Michôd's stark, lacerating debut feature. Seventeen-year-old Joshua "J" Cody (James Frecheville) and his mother sit in their dive-like Melbourne apartment on the sofa watching an inane game show on TV. Neither speaks; both are impassive. The mother for good reason: when the EMTs arrive, it turns out she's dead of an overdose. Then J makes a phone call to his grandmother and things get much, much worse.
Such simple but devastating transitions in the meaning of a scene mark Michôd's low-key, ironic but wrenching narrative approach. He could have observed the monstrously criminal Cody family as if it were an episode of Mutual of Omaha'sWild Kingdom, watching with detached fascination as the beasts cold-bloodedly stalk and devour their prey. Or he could have adopted the lurid, black-comic approach of Roger Corman in his account of the Barker family, the B-movie classic Bloody Mama (1970). Instead, he chooses to take the covert point of view of the young hero. J says little, sees everything, and reveals none of the desperate calculations he makes in order to survive in this epitome of a dysfunctional family. The result is a kind of a low-rent GoodFellas with no voiceover narrator.
What J sees first when he returns to the embrace of the Codys is the affection oozing from grandma, who, despite the unsettling nickname of "Smurf," offers instant security and support. Played in an Oscar-worthy performance by Jacki Weaver, Smurf proves to be a character of Shakespearean darkness and complexity, but in the meantime she serves as a source of comfort to the newly orphaned J as he negotiates his way through the minefield of the rest of the family.
No easy task. J's uncles include the malleable Darren (Luke Ford), who's J's age and eager to prove himself in the family trades of drug dealing and robbery, and the older but hot-headed and addicted Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), who's like the film's variation on Johnny Boy from Mean Streets. Providing a feeble voice of reason is the non-Cody Baz (Joel Edgerton), who sees the futility of it all, wants out, hilariously tries to invest in stocks as a new career, but knows there's not much hope of escape.
All pale before Pope, the eldest of the Cody brothers, the most hypnotically reptilian villain I've seen on screen in a long time. Played by Ben Mendelsohn, he's the creepy uncle stashed in the attic who slithers out to assume the role of paterfamilias. Oozing somnolent menace from hooded eyes, he always surprises with the cunning and lethality of his strike.
Left with little choice, J allows himself to be drawn into the gang's business ventures, which have indeed seen better days. At first, the easy money, the sense of power, and the latent malice of Pope hook him; then a girlfriend and an awful experience snap him out of it. Or maybe not. The alternative offered by the police — despite the earnest decency evident in the detective played by Guy Pearce — doesn't seem much more civilized than the folks back home. For what is normal society but a sublimated version of the feral savagery of the tribe? Far from being a case study about deviant behavior, Animal Kingdom is an extreme fable about basic family values.