Greetings again from the darkness. An Australian movie that packs a wallop! Writer/Director David Michod delivers an unsettling look into one family’s life of crime and the corresponding order of things – the circle of life in the Animal Kingdom. Supposedly based on a true story, this is a tough family that you would not want as relatives. These are not smooth operators like Scorcese provided in Casino or Goodfellas. No, in fact, these guys are much worse.
The matriarch is played chillingly by Jacki Weaver. She is mother or grandmother to the guys (except for one outsider) in the band of crooks. While she messes with your mind through the story, it’s not until the final 15 minutes when she really kicks it up a notch and becomes flat out frightening in her power.
There are only a couple of actors that most people would recognize. Joel Edgerton is the outsider in the group, and the one trying to go straight by playing the stock market with his “earnings”. The other is Guy Pearce, who plays the detective trying to both solve the cases and rescue young Josh, played by newcomer James Frecheville.
Not only is this the type of story that sucks you in, it is a reminder of just how distracting movie stars can be to a film. The lack of stars allows us to really be absorbed into this family, or better, this world of crime, deceit, corruption and paranoia. There is not a single movie star – no one who can capitalize on his film history of characters and immediately generate recognition. Here, the viewer must get to know an entire family for who and what they are. This is powerful stuff for a film lover.
The winner for best psychopath is Ben Mendelsohn as Pope. His dead eyes will scare you. His demeanor will scare you. His actions will disgust you. There are two lines in the film that help us make sense of what occurs. Early on, the narrator tells us that “all crooks come undone” at some point. Later, the detective (Pearce) tells us that in the Animal Kingdom, you are either weak or strong. The lines seem pretty clear.
The focus of the film is on Josh (Frecheville) who gets plopped into this family of criminals after his mom dies of an overdose and he calls his long-lost grandmother (Weaver). Josh spends the rest of the film trying to blend in while staying clean. Of course, even his stoic mask doesn’t save him from the path of destruction created by Pope. The only question is, can he find a way to survive or escape?
In the end, the film is about survival, adaptation and exploring what really defines strong and weak, good and bad. Are you weak or strong? It’s not always easy to tell … and beware of the quiet ones. If you enjoy powerful crime thrillers, this one is worth checking out … and be appreciative for the lack of Hollywood star power. That’s part of why it works!