Animal Kingdom Review
Melbourne, the 1980s. Seventeen-year-old Joshua Cody, known as “J” (James Frecheville), watches his mother die of a heroin overdose. He is picked up by the grandmother he hasn't seen for several years, Janine, nicknamed “Smurf” (Jacki Weaver), who takes J home to live with her. There he meets his two uncles, drug dealer Darren (Luke Ford) and Andrew, known as “Pope” (Ben Mendelsohn), a violent criminal on the run from the police.
Writer-director David Michôd's debut feature treads familiar ground in the crime genre: the corruption – or possible corruption – of an innocent, and the dynamics of a distinctly dysfunctional family. However, its setting makes it fresh, with some incidents inspired by real-life Melbourne crimes, in particular the Walsh Street shootings of 1988 in which two policemen were gunned down after responding to a report of a stolen car.
We see the story from the viewpoint of young J as he sees this criminal family from the inside. His uncles attempt to seduce him into their lifestyle, teaching him to use a gun. Pope especially tries to model the boy after himself. At the heart of the family is Janine, a matriarch who may well be the most ruthless of the lot. There's a scene early on where she demands that Darren give her a kiss – which he does, full on the lips. Michôd holds the shot long enough for us to pick up the semi-incestuous overtones, but he wisely leaves it at that.
In a film with several strong performances, Weaver's stands out, and she was nominated for an Oscar for this role. She's been involved with the Australian cinema industry since its revival in the early 70s. She made her big-screen debut in Stork, for which she won the Australian Film Institute Award for Best Actress, which she followed with Supporting Actress wins for Caddie and the present film. Ben Mendelsohn might have played J in younger days, so it's shrewd casting for him to play the boy's would-be role model, and memorably sleazy he is too. James Frecheville is a little overpowered by the rest of the cast, which means that the film, as well made and constantly tight as it is, doesn't quite have the impact that it should.
Animal Kingdom won ten AFI Awards, including Best Film, Director, Original Screenplay, with acting wins for Mendelsohn, Weaver and Edgerton, and the music score by Antony Partos and Sam Petty.