Animal Kingdom is not a movie about the jungle but simply the law of the jungle: it’s kill or be killed, and only the strong survive. As the poster tagline claims, it is a crime story, about a crime family–the Cody’s–and what happens when their anchor, their leader, is killed. The main character is teenager “J” who has to find a way to survive his crazy uncles’ schemes to get revenge and then to cover up the murders they commit, and to figure out where his own conscience is when it comes to the law and his family. This makes it equally as much a coming of age story as a crime drama, and it is effective in both genres.
Straight up, this is an uncomfortable movie. I actually saw it in the theater (though it is now available on DVD, as well), and I walked out not really sure what I thought of the movie or what had happened in it. The reason it’s so uncomfortable? Because it feels real. It feels like an untenable situation that might really happen, it forces you to consider just what you would do in those circumstances, and it confronts you with the distasteful reality that sometimes there are no good choices. Animal Kingdom is, at its heart, a movie about consequences. Every choice carries them; every decision creates them. It toys with the old adage that life is 10% action and 90% reaction, because most of what happens, most of the choices made, are a direct reaction to something else that has occurred. J has to come to a point where he is not just reacting, but acting, if he wants to survive.
The plot is pretty simple, and I don’t want to say any more specifics about it than I gave above; it really is a movie you should go into with a blank slate in order to get its full effect. But I will say that it’s a movie where you can see what’s coming in places, in a good way–the times when the foreshadowing makes the event even worse, for your having to sit there hoping it wouldn’t go down that way.
The acting was really strong in this movie. James Frecheville plays J, with Joel Edgerton, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton, and Ben Mendelsohn rounding out his uncles. Jacki Weaver is the matriarch of the family, the emotional anchor and the family’s heart, who really only wants to be where her boys are. There wasn’t a weak link in the bunch, for me. Guy Pearce plays the detective investigating the family, and he plays it straight, solid, understated and yet still snaps with charisma every time he is on screen. The power of his performance here, despite its subtlety, convinces me of what Memento and The Proposition had hinted: that any movie he is in is worth watching just to see what he does with it.
The film was written and directed by David Michod, who had only done shorts before this; I would never have pegged this for a first-time feature, so he is definitely on my directors to watch list now.
Fair warning with my bottom line: this is a slow movie. It’s not a shoot-em-up kind of action movie, nor is it slick and talky in the Ocean’s Eleven style of heist movie. It’s not that kind of crime drama; it is a character movie with moments of action and even more moments of emotional tension. But if you like your morality ambiguous, your action followed by consequences, and your life lessons from the hard school, and you don’t mind taking the long way to get there, then this is a movie you definitely want to check out.
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.