ANIMAL KINGDOM: Starring Ben Mendelsohn, Guy Pearce, Joel Edgerton and Jacki Weaver. Directed by David Michôd. Rated MA15+ (strong violence, drug use and coarse language). 113 mins.
Reviewed by Jim Murphy
ALL Melbourne knows about the so-called “Walsh Street murders”, when two young police constables were lured to their deaths in Walsh Street, South Yarra, in 1988.
David Michôd’s engrossing drama Animal Kingdom echoes that infamous crime, although the murder in the movie takes place in another suburb altogether.
Former film journalist Michôd, who also wrote the screenplay, brings something new to the all-too-familiar “underbelly” depiction of underworld characters.
His family of criminals, the Codys, are anything but glamorous and “cool”.
They are nasty, and their mother, the archetypal underworld matriarch, proves to be more cold-bloodedly ruthless than any of them, despite her maternal exterior.
The key element that sets Michôd’s treatment apart is telling the story through the character of the crims’ 17-year-old nephew, Joshua (a most impressive debut by teenager James Frecheville).
At the film’s opening, quiet, introverted Joshua has to deal with his mother’s death from a heroin overdose, and he turns for help to his grandmother Janine Cody (Jacki Weaver). This brings him into contact with his three uncles, from whom his mother had tried to shield him.
There’s a fourth member of the Cody gang, Barry (Joel Edgerton), but he is the only one to realise the futility of pursuing their old ways; he reckons more money can be made in the stock market.
Andrew “Pope” Cody (Ben Mendelsohn) and his brothers, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford), are low-intellect career criminals, specialising in armed robbery and trafficking drugs.
Pope is in hiding because members of the police Armed Robbery Squad have sworn to kill him, and this vendetta with the corrupt police dominates the Codys’ lives.
When one of their number is executed by their police foes, Pope’s revenge is swift.
Leaving a car with doors wide open in a suburban street after midnight, he lies in wait for whatever constables come to investigate and summarily executes them.
Young Joshua is implicated, because Pope had got him to steal the car used as bait in the trap.
And the police seeking to avenge the murder of their colleagues see young, inexperienced Joshua as the one member of the infamous Cody family from whom they might be able to obtain admissions.
Pope realises this too, so Joshua and his nice girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright) become targets for elimination.
The events that lead Joshua to eventually realise how deeply he has been drawn into the murderous web are, in a Shakespearian kind of way, inevitable.
The ordinariness of the characters’ lives makes the story all the more chilling, and you are on the edge of your seat as the climax approaches with potential for grand tragedy.
Michôd directs with assurance and style, without falling back on gratuitous violence or other cinema excesses to milk audience emotions.
There’s no need, because the performances of the first-rate cast are gripping enough, particularly ever-reliable Mendelsohn as the psychotic Pope, Weaver as the coldly smiling gangland mum and Guy Pearce as the detective who has the sense to methodically and patiently chip away at Joshua to try to persuade him to turn informer.
In the end, the film, which won the Grand Jury Prize at America’s Sundance Film Festival, stands as a stark account of crime and corruption and the corrosive effect of revenge.
It is confronting, with frequent coarse language and its pervasive air of menace, but it is a powerful and entirely believable drama – for this reviewer, the best Australian crime movie since Lantana.
Jim Murphy is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.