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Sullivan Stapleton & Jacki Weaver in ANIMAL KINGDOM (Photo: John Tsiavis/Sony Pictures Classics)

Directed & Written by David Michôd
Produced by
Liz Watts
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
Australia. 112 min. Rated R
Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton, James Frecheville, Jacki Weaver & Laura Wheelwright

Animal Kingdom offers a few fresh twists on the usual saga of an outlaw family violently imploding. The Cody clan is not Italian, they carry out their crimes in Melbourne, Australia, and their anchor is a monstrous matriarch—and the chilling reason to see this Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner.

Our guide through the Cody family is blank-faced 17-year-old Joshua (James Frecheville), a hulking man-child. After his mother dies of a heroin overdose, he’s taken in by the grandmother (the riveting Jacki Weaver) he barely knows. She’s benignly nicknamed Smurf, but beneath that maternal smile lays a woman more like Medea, let alone Livia Soprano. Joshua, in his continuing voice-over narration, muses that she just likes being with her boys, on whom she creepily bestows affectionate kisses. 

She and the rest of the family are all aware that they are under police surveillance. The eldest uncle, “Pope” Cody (Ben Mendelsohn), has gone back to his old-school career of bank robbing. His most recent stay in jail left the volatile middle brother, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), to discover the personal/financial benefits of both cocaine and dealing with a corrupt narcotics detective. The youngest uncle, Darren (Luke Ford), is just a few years older than Joshua and nervously passive. The array of their personalities and relationships are put in sharp relief as the police’s brutal armed robbery squad descends on them, and then Pope orchestrates his bloody revenge.

This escalation brings the family into the sights of a different kind of cop, Detective Senior Sergeant Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce), who probes for the family’s weak link. (While Pearce’s clean cop recalls his first American role in Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997), he and Edgerton in 2002 co-starred as gritty Melbourne bank robbing brothers in Scott RobertsThe Hard Word.) Away from police interrogations and the unraveling family, Joshua finds a respite in the comfortably normal home of his girlfriend, Nicky (Laura Wheelwright). Nicky, however, is tempted by the aura of danger and the drugs around his uncles, and she can’t resist coming over to grandmother’s house. The threats to her from big Uncle Pope slowly play out with increasingly queasy dread, but that’s just the lead up for the twists as the film degenerates into a violently conniving game of who can be more devious.

Grandma Smurf wins on noir points. Weaver creates a portrait of a smiling lioness protecting her favorite cub with ruthless cunning rather than histrionic force. But even as Joshua’s inscrutability abets the final suspense, the director’s dependence on his deadpan narration (including a heavy-handed explanation of the title metaphor) unfortunately emphasizes that young Frecheville is no Heath Ledger, who broke out around the same age in a similar role in Gregor Jordan’s Australian crime drama Two Hands (1999). Debut feature writer/director David Michôd says he’s fascinated how the Melbourne locals glorify their flashier than fiction criminals, but the real ones, as portrayed in Andrew Dominik’s Chopper (2000) biopic, seem to trump this pride of animals. Nora Lee Mandel
August 13, 2010



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