Rumble in the Jungle

Animal Kingdom ★★★★½
(Australia, 113 min)
Written & directed by David Michôd
Starring: James Frecheville, Ben Mendelsohn, Guy Pearce, Jacki Weaver, Joel Edgerton.
It’s a dog eat dog world out there. When seen through the eyes of James (James Frecheville) in Animal Kingdom, life seems especially so. James, or ‘J’ as he likes to be called, goes off to live with his grandmother and his uncles after his mother dies from a heroin overdose. His uncles, the Cody boys, are an unruly bunch: Darren (Luke Ford) and Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) are minor street thugs who scrap by on their petty existence by living with their mother, Janine (Jacki Weaver). Given Janine’s smothering dependence on her boys, however, it could be vice-versa. Nonetheless, they are all beholden to Andrew (Ben Mehdelsohn). Andrew, aka ‘Pope’, is the leader of the pack.

When J arrives at the Cody compound, Darren, Craig, and their friend Barry (Joel Edgerton) are all on edge: the police are on the hunt for Pope and have the family under constant surveillance. The three are a brooding pack of alpha males and when they’re not shooting up the town, they’re jostling with one another in the den. Are these men or beasts?

Things escalate, however, when the police make an offensive move on the Cody clan. Pope then makes less of an effort to hide, and he soon orchestrates a retaliation. It’s an ill-conceived plan that the boys pull off surprisingly well, but with one major glitch: in the sloppiness of their execution, they implicate J. J, however, is only a kid and, therefore, he can hardly be relied upon to protect the family once he comes under the attention of Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce).
As the severity of the police surveillance escalates and the Cody brothers become rapt with paranoia, it becomes clear that the leader of the pack is not Pope, but Janine. At first, Janine just seems like an over attached parent. It may be that she just has issues with letting go – or abandonment – but her affection for her boys appears undeniably sincere. As the police investigation goes underway, however, Janine begins to orchestrate a familial betrayal that pits the various relations against one another in a carnivorous opus of deceit, and ultimately, survival. As Janine, Jacki Weaver is ferociously unforgettable. Although Weaver is almost a foot and a half shorter than her male co-stars, she towers above the cast with her exceptional screen presence and spellbinding evilness. Weaver instills within Janine a grandmother's natural charm and adoring gleefulness, so Janine is perhaps the most deceptive villains to grace the screen in recent memory. By the end of the film, Janine’s desperation is so devilishly wicked that Animal Kingdom becomes Shakespearean in the magnitude of its dramatic irony. What’s fascinating about Animal Kingdom, though, is that Janine’s mercilessness appears to be a natural defense mechanism. After all, what mother wouldn’t protect her cubs?

By stressing the power of Weaver’s performance, one should not make the mistake of suggesting that the rest of the cast leaves much to be desired.  Newcomer James Frecheville is especially good as J: the range and dexterity of his performance is all the more impressive given that this is his first lead role. Putting such a bulk of the dramatic weight on an untested actor frequently proves disastrous, but Frecheville performs more than capably thanks to Michôd’s strong direction and the complementary dramatic efforts of his co-stars.

Animal Kingdom is a laudable feature debut by writer/director David Michôd. In the Cody family, Michôd delivers a complexly built film of unpredictable dramatic force. Not only is Animal Kingdom a richly composed character film, but it’s also the most taut and riveting crime drama of the year.