David Michôd’s 2010 film Animal Kingdom is a multi-layered tale which follows a Melbourne crime family – the Cody’s led by Jackie Weaver’s matriarch “Smurf”. Loosely based on the Pettingill family, who took on the Melbourne police in the 1980s, the film opens with James Frecheville’s “J” as he is taken in by the family following the death of his mother from a heroin overdose. A newcomer to the fold, J is shown the ropes of the family trade, but he soon becomes a target for the police, who see him as a weak link in the chain of defense that surrounds the family. This Australian film is the kind of film that Hollywood was producing in the 70s and early 80; like the films of Sidney Lumet – most notably Prince of the City and Serpico, but sadly the lack of interest in such productions has made them all but extinct.
Animal Kingdom has a great script and a captivating story – but the film comes alive because of the intense performances. While seventeen year-old James Frecheville may deliver the weakest performance, it’s by no means poor, it’s his first screen performance and this naiveté as a actor mirrors his character as he watches bigger and stronger personalities around him. Weaver’s performance won many awards and was even Oscar nominated, but the real standout here is Ben Mendelsohn’s sociopathic Pope. The actor delivers so much in the role that in lesser hands would have been over blown and bombastic, but Mendelsohn keeps it bubbling under the surface and when we first meet him sneaking into the Cody residence at night, we might think that he’s a buffoon. But the character soon grows and he becomes even more vicious, but no less charming.
Joel Edgerton delivers a charismatic performance in the small role as Baz, and it’s easy to see why Hollywood came calling for the actor. Guy Pearce also gives fine support as the policeman who tries to get J to turn against the family – he’s one of the few characters in the film who appears to have a moral compass and the character is reminiscent of Gary Oldman’s Jim Gordan in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films.
First-time director Michôd shows flair for scripting and artful direction (he also penned cult hit Hesher) and he has delivered film that works because of the dialogue, plot and strong performances – not because it’s filled with gimmicky effects and stunt casting. He should have a distinguished career ahead of him, if he is manages to avoid the pitfalls of starting out with such a strong debut. Recommended.