Very loosely inspired by the Walsh Street police murders in 1988, Animal Kingdom is an Australian crime drama that doesn’t feel like anything else that has come before it. Tonally it owes more to Rowan Woods’s excellent drama The Boys rather than other Australian crime films like The Square, Gettin’ Square or The Hard Word and yet it still follows the conventions of a crime drama to result in a complex and gripping piece of cinema.
At the centre of the film is Joshua ‘J’ Cody (played by newcomer James Frecheville), a socially inept and introverted teenage boy who goes to live with his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver) after the death of his mother. Janine’s sons (played by Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Sullivan Stapleton and Luke Ford) are career criminals whose lives are increasingly under treat from a group of vengeful and trigger-happy detectives.
Writer/director David Michôd achieves a remarkable intensity throughout Animal Kingdom with his command over film style. Director of Photography Adam Arkapaw’s superb slow and fluid camera movements often creep up behind characters or emerge from behind obstructions to give many scenes a sense of paranoia and vulnerability. Composer Antony Partos’s haunting music often consists of a slow series of heavy notes but the result is an atmosphere of utter menace. One scene where a television in the background plays the video clip to Air Supply’s softrock hit “All Out Of Love” is made extraordinarily creepy by the addition of Partos’s music to really reinforce the threat posed by one of the characters.
Michôd takes an extremely low-key approach to the violence so that it never has a chance of becoming entertaining spectacle. Violence is an important part of Animal Kingdom but it occurs quickly, often without warning and in an almost muted way. The result is that the actual physical acts of violence are not under scrutiny but we are instead compelled to focus on the aftermath to confront the horror of what has happened and the fact that human beings are capable of such acts. The violence in Animal Kingdom is never graphic but it is always chilling.
While Animal Kingdom is a tightly written and expertly directed film it still owes much of its power to its fantastic cast. James Frecheville is remarkable as J and the film really takes advantage of the fact that Frecheville is the unknown actor amid many of Australia’s finest and most well known performers (also including Guy Pearce). For most of the film Frecheville is a blank slate – almost the ultimate innocent bystander – but in one key scene where he does emote he gives a performance in one or two minutes that many actors strive for throughout their entire careers.
All the actors playing the Cody brothers are wonderful but it really is Ben Mendelsohn who shines as Andrew ‘Pope’ Cody. Pope is first discussed in the film as being the one everybody else feared but when we first see him he looks so inconsequential that you cannot help but wonder if there was an error in the script. However, as the film builds Mendelsohn brings a simmering furiousness to Pope that is truly terrifying. Mendelsohn constantly keeps this energy right below the surface so that it is never obvious but always present enough for us to see it and dread what he could be capable of.
Animal Kingdom is the best crime film ever made in Australia and it’s one of the best crime films full stop. Michôd really gets us into the world of these characters in a way that makes them completely fascinating without ever glorifying the destructive lives they lead. A film like this should horrify and revolt you but when it is this well crafted and so lovingly and intelligently made by everybody involved, the results are captivating.