'Animal Kingdom' Suffers for Its Ambition

David Michôd's debut slowly explores a damaged family's history

Happily sampling nasty beats and riffs from the Scorsese catalog, the new Aussie crime saga Animal Kingdom begins with a hushed but breath-holding set piece: A gawky lad watches TV on the couch next to his dozing mum . . . until the already-summoned EMTs arrive and the boy calmly tells them she has OD’d on smack. They try to revive her, and the boy blankly waits beside them. As it becomes clear she’s dead, his eyes continually, habitually veer back to the game show on TV. First-time writer/director David Michôd limns a dank and lost family history in just these few barely conscious gestures, and the toxic fumes of inherited misery fill your head.

Inheritance is the movie’s fueling idea. Contrary to the title’s suggestion of a sweeping, societal portrait of venality run amok, the action is restricted to a single Melbourne family of rampaging crooks—and the cops who want to kill them. The alienated teen is Joshua Cody (James Frecheville), who, with nowhere else to go, calls his garrulous grandmother—somehow nicknamed Smurf (Jacki Weaver)­—and is accepted into her roiling nest of pathology. This chintzy suburban house is where up to half of the movie plays out, dominated by Smurf’s three sons: Darren (Luke Ford), a surly post-teen visibly uneasy with following the family line; Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), a tattooed coke brute with azure eyes to die for; and Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), the oldest, a bank robber off his meds and hiding out from the fuzz.

A heist buddy looking to straighten up (Joel Edgerton) tops off the testosterone, which heats up a bit in the face of Joshua’s uncertain presence. With Joshua’s narration, the template is GoodFellas but without the crescendos. We’re experiencing the Cody clan essentially post-felony—they’re all already hunkered down and waiting the law out.

Michôd’s film is kind of languorous in observing the family as it self-destructs under pressure. Joshua becomes a pawn between his cousins and the police, forced even to escape protective custody because the cops can be bought, too. The movie maintains a low boil, marbled up with a portentous liturgical score, but meanwhile, eggs do get cooked: Michôd’s portrait of Melbourne’s low-rent outlands is convincing, Mendelsohn’s flabby jerk emerges as a fresh kind of sociopathic menace (not the kind that announces his madness with bulk physicality or glaring eyes), and Weaver’s bubble-headed mom morphs into a back-stabbing Ma Barker. When the SWAT team does finally descend, it’s silently, suddenly glimpsed crossing a hallway in the background behind Joshua’s back.

That opening moment, though, when Joshua glances from his dead mom to the TV—there’s nothing else like it.

Animal Kingdom was written and directed by David Michôd; and stars James Frecheville, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton, Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver. Rated R. At University Town Center, 4245 Campus Dr., Irvine, (949) 854-8818.

 

This review appeared in print as "Epic In Training:Animal Kingdom suffers for its ambition."

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