“Crooks always come undone”
The new, critically acclaimed Australian film Animal Kingdom debuted earlier this year at Sundance to rave reviews before it even opened in its native country. Finally, eight months later, the rest of North America is able to check out this brutal crime drama for themselves in select cities too. And they aren’t likely to forget the Cody family after watching the story unfold, seeing young Josh scooped into their criminal activity with no other place to go after his mother overdoses on heroin. A seemingly good kid, he is also far from oblivious to what his uncles do for a living. Although he hasn’t seen them all in years due to a row between his mother and grandmother, what he sees upon his return to the fold doesn’t necessarily surprise him. He’s scared of it all, but the fact he can see fear behind the eyes of Darren, Craig, and their friend Barry Brown gives him comfort that he’s not alone. The discovery of what that fear stems from, however, eldest Cody ‘Pope’ and his unpredictable rage, becomes the turning point in his growth to either enlist or get as far away as he can.
First time feature-length fiction writer/director David Michôd brings together a fantastic cast, including newcomer James Frecheville as Josh. He has written each character as a fully realized human being, the details of which come across in their dialogue and actions. While this gang is all laughs and good times on the surface, you begin to see where everyone stands by their facial reactions forever showing the truth. The cops are after Pope, played by Ben Mendelsohn, and have driven him into hiding, leaving the other three guys to hold the fort and begin deciding on their futures. Sullivan Stapleton’s Craig has moved on from armed robbery into the drug business, using a friend on the narcotics squad to reap huge benefits without risk of arrest; Joel Edgerton’s Barry has a wife and a future set before him, discovering the criminal life no longer fits in his plans—robbery has gotten too difficult and the drug trade too dirty for his skewed morals—the stock market now filling that void; and Luke Ford’s Darren appears as though he never was cut out for the life, fear constantly present yet unable to say no to Pope.
But in all honesty, none of them are willing to stand up against this crazed, off his meds and on illicit drugs, psychopath. Crime is all he’s known and he has trained his brothers well to share the spoils while their mother looks on with full knowledge of what they do and not only accepting it, but actively participating also. Everything seems like it will disintegrate below them as Pope leaves to go on the run and the others look to go straight until the police department goes too far. Once one of them is shot in broad daylight, Pope is on full alert, readying to finish the war with extreme retribution. If anyone risks getting in his way, he wastes no time alleviating the problem. Guy Pearce’s Officer Leckie is on the hunt and wants nothing more to take these brothers down once and for all. Whether he ordered the hit or not is unknown, but he doesn’t hesitate to jump on the opportunity it presents once they strike back by killing two cops in cold blood. Using their guilt—Pope the only one amoral enough to feel none—Pearce shrewdly composes a situation for them to begin dismantling themselves. And after young Josh starts to see how disposable he is, the police may finally have a first-hand witness to put the Codys away for good.
Animal Kingdom is never afraid of going places a Hollywood-produced film wouldn’t dare even attempting. Whether it be an abrupt killing early on of a critical character to set the unpredictable tone, the unapologetic actions of Pope while the others either look on unable to lift a finger to stop him or sometimes actually partake in the deed, or the jarring reality of exactly how dirty Jacki Weaver’s Cody matriarch is willing to get to save her family, the audience will continuously be surprised and shocked by what goes on. The title is no mistake, the Cody family live in an existence governed by the rules of kill or be killed—it’s survival of the fittest at its most vicious, blood relations no longer important if it means breathing one more day. And it’s rarely outside forces causing the demise of the truly successful criminal families; their undoing is generally sparked from within. Fear and paranoia wreak havoc on those afflicted by both, leading to increased drug use and unforgivable mistakes. When you begin to underestimate those around you, you’re as good as dead.
The cast excels at showing the Shakespearean tragedy of it all. These men have been following Pope too long and are finally seeing what the cost of it all is—their own blood in the streets. I love Mendelsohn’s unnerving ability to be devoid of emotion at all times. It’s as if there is no life behind his eyes, always calculating and always acting without thinking of the consequences, or better yet, not caring about them. But it is his three foot soldiers that I cannot shake from my head. Edgerton’s tough demeanor tempered with the knowledge he is done with the life; Stapleton’s hotshot, manic restlessness and apparent void of soul like his older brother until we see him not only become out of his mind paranoid from guilt, but also completely breakdown, the one brother you wouldn’t think could cry, weeping like a baby from the pain of loss; and Ford’s eventual complete subservience, no longer allowing himself a voice to fight for good as he accepts defeat. And Weaver’s mother losing her ability to ‘spin positive’ lingers as well as Frecheville’s stoic innocent, falling deeper and deeper into the chaos he never wanted to be a part of.
But don’t count out Michôd as he delivers his own unique style to the proceedings. With a liberal use of slowed down shots, as if the camera is hovering in mid-air, lingering on characters as they cope with loss and the conflict of their souls, he brings some gravitas to the already emotional scenes. Add Antony Partos’s melancholy score and you’ll be enraptured with each instance of deliberate, speechless reflection throughout. The trope reaches its cinematic high point in an extended montage of reaction shots once arrests are made, showing a mother’s disappointment and anger, two brother’s acceptance of the event, another family unknowingly involved discovering their own personal tragedy, and the boy who’s arrival seems to have coincided with every bad thing that has occurred. End it all with a final interlude that couldn’t be more appropriate and you’ve got yourself a director’s debut that cannot be missed.
Animal Kingdom 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½
 Ben Mendelsohn as Andrew ‘Pope’ Cody
Photo by Bronwyn Rennex, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Left to Right: Jacki Weaver as Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody and Joel Edgerton as Barry ‘Baz’ Brown
Photo by Narelle Sheean, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics