As Martin Scorsese settles into his cinematic dotage, directors whose crime movies can stand tall beside the verve, grit, and sweep of his prime era are suddenly mushrooming around the globe. First there was Matteo Garrone’s 2008 Gomorrah from Italy, then Jacques Audiard’s 2009 A Prophet from France, and now Australian writer/director’s David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom, the most Scorsesean of them all.
Based in part on the true exploits of Melbourne crime families in the late 1980s, Animal Kingdom introduces us to mouth-breathing teen Joshua “J” Cody (newcomer James Frecheville) sitting in a crappy apartment slumped on a couch next to a seemingly unconscious older woman, watching an inane TV show. The woman, it turns out, is his mother. It also turns out that she is dead. The police arrive, at which point he finally pulls his eyes from the tube; soon his teeny blonde grandmother Smurf (an incredible Jacki Weaver) arrives to take him into her home.
We learn that J’s mother had always kept him away from her own mother, and it soon becomes clear why: Despite her cheery demeanor and abundant displays of affection, Smurf hasn’t raised sons so much as she’s spawned a criminal crew. While kind-faced, clean-cut family friend Baz (Joel Edgerton) takes a paternal interest in J, tattooed, shirtless Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) brings him along on drug deals and at one point literally hands the youth a loaded gun. Baby brother Darren (Luke Ford) is a bit of a damp squib as a criminal, and as a functioning human being; oldest brother Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), meanwhile, is a weedy Polanski of a man with the unblinking stare of the truly dangerous. Just as J starts to feel like one of the dysfunctional family, the cops come down hard on the Codys, the Codys come back harder at the cops, and everyone is quickly reminded how much of a stranger J actually is. Melbourne Police detective Leckie (Guy Pearce) does his best to bring J in as a witness—and a human being—but it’s soon clear that J’s on his own in this suburban jungle.
Animal Kingdom is a crime flick that rarely depicts crime. Indeed, much of the treachery and violence on display here are domestic, even internal, as the cluckingly maternal Smurf manipulates her sons, and her sons address their problems through their damaged emotional responses. Baz, not being an actual Cody, is well-adjusted enough that he talks of getting out of armed robbery as a profession and playing the stock market with his takings. A reaction shot of Pope’s uncomprehending mug is enough to establish that a nice, stable life isn’t possible for him. Frecheville’s beautifully modulated emotional blankness from J’s very first moments onscreen establishes the character’s Cody kinship as well as providing a neutral backdrop for the looming dangers of proximity to these volatile men. Even a scene where Craig jovially forces J’s new girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright) to open her mouth to catch shrimp tossed across a table simmers with undertones of violation and menace. And though the Cody brothers seem like trouble, it’s their mother who proves the most formidable force of all.
The intimate family portraiture here doesn’t inhibit Michôd’s chances to flash plenty of Scorsesean flair, from shooting the Cody men as if they were predators on a wildlife special to scoring a big emotional crux with Aussie MOR band Air Supply’s treacly power ballad “All Out of Love.” What you’ll most likely leave the theater remembering, however, are the performances, most especially Mendelsohn’s stunted Pope and Weaver’s sunny, sinister Smurf, an instant classic film villainess. But it’s Frecheville, in his first film role, who carries the entire story from the most difficult position imaginable—as an inchoate, inert cipher, passively swept along until it’s eat-or-be-eaten time. He’s easy to underestimate, and therein lies much of his—and the movie’s—ultimate power.