In gangster movies like Scarface and Goodfellas, the criminal antiheroes enjoy a period of money, sex and high-adrenalin capers before their luck runs out and the law catches up to them. In Australia's Animal Kingdom, the glory days have definitely passed the bank-robbing Cody brothers. They hole up in dingy bungalows in Melbourne's suburbs, under the close watch of the police. Animal Kingdom doesn't even show them rob banks, apart from a montage of security camera footage in the opening credits.
Seventeen-year-old "J" Cody (James Frecheville) rejoins the fold after his mother's overdose: The spare opening scene shows J. sitting on a sofa next to his mother, who may be already dead, while an abrasive game show blares in the background. Despite his mother's estrangement with the rest of the family, J calls his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver), who treats her son's illicit activities as just another family business. Janine eagerly reunites J with his includes, including tough, sensible Baz (Joel Edgerton), restless drug pusher Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and the cagey, possible sociopathic Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), who's most wanted by the police and has a near-mythic stature early on.
For a while, it looks as though Baz will serve as a father figure to J, who clearly craves a strong role model. Instead, circumstance places Uncle Pope in charge of the gang, and his leadership style and judgment is roughly analogous to Uncle Scar's in comparison to Mufasa in The Lion King. The gang puts J in increasingly perilous positions, while the police pressure the teen to flip on his family. Guy Pearce, behind Commissioner Gordon glasses and mustache, plays a sympathetic detective, but other cops prove shockingly willing to use violence against suspects.
Director David Michôd gives the film a naturalistic style that suits its grim, cautionary message about the criminal lifestyle. The actors ease into their roles with deceptive calm, given their ability to tap darker emotions at a moment's notice. Mendelsohn conveys the same determination as Harvey Keitel or John Hurt at his most aggressive. The film's most chilling performance, however, belongs to Weaver, who initially seems like a nurturing matriarch delighted to be with her boys and exclaim, "Give us a kiss!" Janine proves capable of terrifyingly cold choices in the name of protecting her sons.
Weaver's performance leaves a haunting impression in a spare, credible film that holds few real surprises. Animal Kingdom shares some of the creative team (notably Joel Edgerton) with the Australian film noir The Square from earlier this year, another violent, grittily photographed tale that indicates as resurgence in Australia's independent film scene. Movie fans should keep this gang of tough guys under surveillance.