Animal Kingdom, the Australian crime export from first time director David Michôd, is a pretty good film that falls short of being great by making one crucial mistake. It’s remarkable how good it is; devastating how much better it should’ve been.
Kingdom tells the story of Joshua “J” Cody (James Frecheville), a teenager who has to move in with his grandmother and uncles after his mother dies. The only problem is that J’s uncles are a band of criminals known as the Cody Boys that are locked in a seemingly unending war with Melbourne’s quick to the trigger law enforcement. J soon finds himself caught up in their world as it spirals into a more and more violent place, all the while he trying to figure out where he stands.
There is much to praise here. Michôd directs with an expert hand for a first timer, choosing to ignore the glitz and glamour that often romanticizes many crime films. Instead, he opts for a gritty, often hand held approach that creates a disarmingly intimate portrait of a family gone wrong. He gives the film a definite texture; a scent. It sweats. You can taste it.
The performances, for the most part, are all brilliantly realized, but the one that sticks out the most is Ben Mendelsohn’s turn as the Cody Brothers leader, Pope. Mendelsohn changes what could’ve been a routine performance as a mastermind type figure and turns it into some more troubling. Pope is short on words, but his eyes are always watching, calculating. There is a brilliant moment where he is watching J and his girlfriend sleep on their couch while the music video for “I’m All Out of Love” plays on their television. The way he regards them is how I imagine a hyena looks when it spots its next meal: savage, scavenging, hungry. It is a performance that elevates the film by making the other performances around him better.
For all that Animal Kingdom gets right, it is all the more disappointing that it falls short by never making J, the main character, more compelling. He is always at arms length, hidden behind a blank stare, acting more as a window for the audience to see this world than to actually participate in it. We see J act and occasionally react, but we never really get a sense of what this all means to him. How high are the stakes? Where do his loyalties really lie? It is this crucial flaw that is ultimately the film’s undoing.
The other pieces are all in place, but there is no central force to make them all move to transform Animal Kingdom into a truly great film. Taken as it is, Michôd’s debut is occasionally fascinating and packed with future promise, but still ultimately unsatisfying. For all the time spent watching these creatures rip and tear into one another, at the films end that you’re reminded that all this time you’ve been at the zoo, viewing from behind the glass. Watching, but never participating.
A smart, well paced crime story, Animal Kingdom is worth watching despite its flaws: B