ANIMAL KINGDOM is a devastatingly powerful film with a brilliant performance from newcomer James Frecheville as J, a 17-year-old set adrift between a criminal family that he barely knows, and a legal system that until then has done a spectacular job of failing him.
It begins with the camera drifting across two dead souls, the one belonging to J still residing in a living body. The other one is his mother, who has overdosed on heroin. J registers no emotion, his disengaged attention taken equally with the paramedics who are ministering to his mother and the cheesy game show playing on the television across the room. There is the same curious lack of emotion when he makes the call to his estranged grandmother, Smurf (Jacki Weaver), a diminutive woman with a large personality, arrives on the scene to swoop him back into the bosom of his troubled family. While Smurf is an animated extrovert, perky in outlook, feral in cunning, and lavish in affection, though lingering just a beat too long when kissing her grown sons on the mouth, those sons are dark. That they make their living robbing banks is the least of their failings. The eldest, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) is a sociopath whose very calm exterior is the hard edge of a seething mass of inchoate and contradictory emotions, and whose hard stare boils up from a bottomless pit of vitriol. Middle brother, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) deals drugs on the side, uses them with abandon, and rages constantly and unpredictably. The youngest, Darren (Luke Ford) is almost as emotionally shut down as J, though with a dull malevolence born of holding his own with his brothers. When Barry (Joel Edgerton), the familys partner in crime, and the closest thing to a positive influence in Js life, decides that robbing banks has become too difficult, and turns instead to the stock market, it precipitates a crisis that culminates in blood, betrayal, and both a baptism of fire into the family business, an unexpected chance at redemption for J.
Writer/director David Michod uses intuitive direction and spare dialogue, allowing the underlying tensions to take center stage, and the uniformly strong performances to do their work. Gestures tell stories that words couldnt, and convey feelings and intentions with a stunning clarity. Guy Pearce, as the detective making a bid for Js soul, finds the basic and unswerving decency behind his characters required protocols. When he reaches out unselfconsciously to straighten Js collar, Pearce makes it the warmest, most altruistic gesture that J has received. Its Frecheville, though, with the most minimalist of approach that keeps the films central question of which way J will go uncertain until the very end, and then settling it with complete emotional honesty. There is the tug of very different kinds of safety offered by each side that J sees with a mixture of resignation and hope, the contrast of discovering the usual bickering of his girlfriends family and the peculiar rhythms of his own family that require keeping his guard up while also being impassive and, most of all, tough. When, late in the film, his character allows himself to really feel something, it is a visceral explosion on screen.
ANIMAL KINGDOM never disappoints as it leads the audience through its twists and turns. It takes the crime drama to new heights pitting the weak against the strong, and redefining power and justice in just those terms.