Metaphor movies have to overcome a great deal to be good. It just takes one or two moments too many to be so overt as to be cloying. A metaphor needs to be a clever and there’s nothing less clever than repetition. Animal Kingdom (2010), as its title suggests, is a metaphor movie. David Michôd writes and directs what was the Australian film of 2010 for his first full-length feature. The Australian Film Institute nominations are laughable—three of the four Supporting Actor nominations were for actors in Animal Kingdom. It even got nominated for costume design and they were just wearing clothes! Homer-ism to one side, here in the US, it was released to 61 theaters to make about a million. That is to say, not a lot of people saw it. Now that it’s out and relatively cheap on Blu-Ray, that should change.
J Cody (James Frecheville) has an irregular family. His mother has just overdosed and died, so he has to contact his grandmother, Janine (Jacki Weaver), because he doesn’t know what else to do. Janine takes this information pretty calmly and it becomes pretty clear why. First of all, Janine has a very strong relationship with her sons, who are criminals (robbers, mainly). Baz Brown (Joel Edgerton) is the calm center (and really just a friend of Pope’s), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is the kinetic drug-dealer, Darren (Luke Ford) basically follows along, and Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) is the oldest and craziest. Things are tough out there for the Cody clan. The Armed Robbery Unit is shooting criminals without restraint and they’re out looking for Pope. Things get uncomfortable, then out of hand, and finally spiral completely out of control with Sgt. Leckie (Guy Pearce) close on the trail.
When I saw that Ben Mendelsohn was in this movie, I decided to buy it. After Killing Them Softly (2012) and then The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) I recognized that this guy brought quality with him. Looking at his IMDb page, I keep thinking “Oh yeah, he was in that.” Animal Kingdom provides him with probably the largest role I’ve seen him in and he performs well. He’s insane, but not particularly complicated. Who I really wanted to see more of was Joel Edgerton’s character. Someone normal-ish to bring these guys in line, but he makes an exit surprisingly early in the film. Really, this is James Frecheville’s story and relies upon the power of the script rather than any brilliant performances. It absolutely requires ability, but needs no compensation. Still, you look at this cast and it’s amazing.
The Blu-Ray cover says “An Australian answer to Goodfellas” and I think that’s pretty accurate in both story and performance level (though I think we need a better trope than “the ___ answer to” because these are not so much answers to questions as cultural adaptations). Michôd could have brought in more of the police perspective to increase the scope of his message. He also might have left more breadcrumbs for the resolution to make it more satisfying. That said, Animal Kingdom is clearly supposed to be a dark and realistic, so I can see how those might have tempted contrivance.
Animal Kingdom brings quality along with it in every category. The script is very interesting. Like I said, there are a lot of metaphors running around and it’s very easy to make those ponderous, but Michôd keeps it understated for the most part. When it does bubble up into the dialogue, it’s in the hands of Guy Pearce and he knows how to deliver those lines. The message stays clean and effective. The cinematography by Adam Arkapaw is in the mainstream of indie drama, close and hand-held. The score (Antony Partos) is also familiar in the nerve-tightening swell of strings. If I had one complaint it’s that the sound isn’t well balanced, so I had to fix the volume between the accented mumblings and loud musical interludes.
It’s easy to do crime films cheap, but they really put something lasting together in Animal Kingdom.