Has an Australian film been released since the mid-1980s without at least one appearance from a current or former Neighbours or Home and Away actor? I mention this not as a slight on the aforementioned soap operas but actually more of a tribute to this seemingly never-ending conveyor belt of talent. Animal Kingdom stars perhaps the most successful graduate of Erinsborough, Guy Pearce, but for once he’s not the star of the show. Instead, Ben Mendelsohn (who played Warren in Neighbours back in the mid-late ’80s) is the main man in this simmering family crime drama.
Mendelsohn plays Andrew "Pope" Cody, who has made his way in life by committing armed robberies with his best mate Baz (Edgerton). Pope's brother Craig (Stapleton) deals drugs, while younger brother Darren (Ford) is learning the ropes. Under almost constant police surveillance, Pope stays under the radar and it’s Smurf (Jacki Weaver) who is very much in charge of the day-to-day goings on in the Cody household. Things are shaken up somewhat by the arrival of her grandson Joshua (Frecheville), or J as he’s known, whose mother has overdosed on heroin. Only seventeen, J is a quiet lad who slowly begins to take in what’s going on around him but isn’t sure quite where he fits into the scene, if at all.
As the police close in on Pope, J’s involvement in the family’s criminality increases and his girlfriend Nicky (Wheelwright) inevitably becomes drawn into the situation. As events unfold, Sergeant Nathan Leckie (Pearce) investigates and a game of cat and mouse begins, with the thoughtful cop trying to appeal to J’s innocence to get him to do what’s right.
Animal Kingdom is an interesting film. That may sound like damning with faint praise but it’s not. It’s well written (and directed) by David Michôd and for a feature debut is nicely assured. The characters are what you might expect from a low-key crime drama but not overly clichéd. Having said that, there seems to be an over-reliance on dramatic music to inject tension and I found the much-lauded and Oscar nominated Jacki Weaver’s Smurf something of a caricature, and probably the most predictable element of the whole film.
Ostensibly the lead character, J provides a voiceover narration at the start but this is quickly dispensed with and while the viewer is invited to live the story from his perspective, James Frecheville is so minimalist in his performance that for the most part it’s hard to have any real emotional attachment to the one character with whom you might want to sympathise. While his relationship with Pearce’s Leckie isn’t explored enough, his dealings with his uncle certainly are. Mendelsohn’s performance as the unhinged and erratic Pope is terrific and at times terrifying, and every scene he’s in is tense.
It’s a shame then that this isn’t translated across the length of film but the fact is that the stop-start nature of the plot and the uneven pacing means that while there a few excellent sequences (which to be fair to Frecheville, mostly involve J in the latter stages of the story), as a whole it feels somewhat unsatisfactory. Intelligent, intermittently engaging and generally well performed, Animal Kingdom is good but not quite great.
EXTRAS ★★½ Interviews with Michôd, Pearce, Mendelsohn, Edgerton, Weaver, Frecheville, Wheelwright, Stapleton and Ford; a Making Of featurette; the theatrical trailer