The debut feature from writer/director David Michôd is a masterpiece of drama, mood and tension.
Partially inspired by the 1988 murder of two young policemen in Walsh Street, South Yarra, and the ensuing 1991 Supreme Court trial of the four men charged with the crime, David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom
is a powerful and transfixing debut; a tautly constructed family drama about loyalty, love, and revenge.
At the centre of the film is the softly spoken teenage protagonist Joshua ‘J’ Cody (newcomer James Frecheville), thrust into a world of crime following his mother’s sudden death. “Mum kept me away from her family, because she was scared,” the teenager comments in voice-over, and we soon learn why.
Joshua’s uncles – brooding armed robber Andrew ‘Pope’ Cody (a cold-eyed Ben Mendelsohn), speed-freak drug dealer Craig Cody (Sullivan Stapleton) and the youngest of the three brothers, Darren Cody (Luke Ford) – are career criminals whose lives revolve around their ferociously loving, totally uncompromising mother, Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody (a magnificent performance by Jacki Weaver).
When a sudden death sends the family spiraling out of control, J discovers that his new world is far more dangerous than he could ever have imagined.
From the opening scene, which perfectly and surprisingly underplays its dramatic potential, it is clear that Michôd is very much in control of his medium.
Central to the film’s success is the writer/director’s decision to focus first and foremost on the Cody family. While this is a crime story – and a compelling one – at its heart, Animal Kingdom is a family drama: the story of a family of sociopaths and the poisonous bonds between them.
The characters are meticulously drawn, especially Joel Edgerton’s Barry ‘Baz’ Brown, a criminal experiencing a mid-life crisis as opportunities for armed robbers dry up, and Pope’s best friend. Baz is perhaps the most stable of the crew, and his influence and concern for J – evidenced in an almost tender bathroom scene – verges on the paternal.
Guy Pearce as Detective Senior Sgt Nathan Leckie is an equally compelling figure; a hardened copper who sees J as potentially providing the leverage he needs to crack the murder case he’s investigating, but also a loving family man, and once again a potential father figure for the sullen, sad teenager.
Watching J being pulled in opposite directions, between crime and justice, between honesty and loyalty, the audience knows that sooner or later he has to crack. It’s in guessing which side he will land on that makes Animal Kingdom such engaging and dramatic viewing.
The finely tuned performances, a bleak palette, the superb sound design – at its most memorable in a chilling scene in which a tense Pope sits watching J’s sleeping girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright) as Air Supply’s bland pop song ‘I’m All Out of Love’ plays on the soundtrack, underscored by an ominous base tone evoking the drama to come – and wonderfully taut editing further contribute to the masterful whole which Michôd and his collaborators have created.
Rather than a flashy, high-octane gangster flick, Michôd has crafted an oppressive, subtle and powerful drama, where suspense is created by the camera lingering and holding a shot instead of leaping from scene to scene. It’s a remarkably confident debut feature, and a truly compelling film.
Animal Kingdom opens nationally on June 3.
Starring Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, Luke Ford, Jacki Weaver, Sullivan Stapleton and introducing James Frecheville.
Writer/Director: David Michôd
Producer: Liz Watts
Cinematographer: Adam Arkapaw
Editor: Luke Doolan
Production Designer: Jo Ford
Composer: Antony Partos
Sound Designer: Sam Petty