E: If you listen to the narrator, and consider the title, it’ll give you all the information necessary about the Aussie crime family flick Animal Kingdom. Down deep, criminals are always scared, because they know it’s just a matter of time before they get caught. The law is always coming. Or to look at it in terms of the animal kingdom, there’s always a predator who’s bigger than you, somewhere, out there. No matter how smart or how strong you think you are, it can never be enough.
Animal Kingdom is a story of cascading horrors. It begins with two people watching a hideous, screechy game show, a sleeping middle aged woman and an impassive teen age boy. It’s only when the EMTs arrive that we come to understand that the woman has overdosed and died. Confused and alone, the boy Jay calls his estranged grandmother, and she arrives, a tiny blond bundle of love and warmth, to bring him back to the fold his mother had fled.
The fold, that is, of drug dealing bank robbers.
Ironically, we don’t see a single robbery during the course of the film, because her three sons (Jay’s uncles) are all being hunted by a particularly vicious anti-robbery unit. But that family unit, they’re alarming enough anyway. There’s Andy, also known as Pope, who’s in hiding and is more than a little bit off; he’s the sort that make the hair stand up on the back of your neck when he tries to be nice. His buddy Barry, or Baz, seems to have his head on straight; he’s got a nice house, a pretty wife and infant and is planning on sinking his loot into the stock market. Frenetic son Craig’s diversified into drugs. Darren, the golden haired boy, doesn’t think too much about anything; he does his best to copy his mother’s positive attitude, assuming everything going to be okay.
As the cops bear down with shocking violence, the family spins out of control. The first half of the film almost clogs up with dread, but as the cops get closer and closer, and Pope further and further out of control, the narrative becomes tense and twisty and fascinating. The police set the plot in motion with shocking violence ruthlessly engineered to flush Pope out of hiding. A cycle of revenge and terror begins, and Jay is drawn into it. Guy Pearce shows up as a relentless and yet almost sympathetic cop; he immediately pounces on Jay as the loose chink in the family armor, and works away at him, trying to pry him loose. Then there’s the Cody family lawyer, who brings his own slick counsel and seems smart – but will it matter how smart he is, if Pope won’t trust Jay on his own, if Pope doesn’t see Jay as family enough to be trusted? Which are the lies? What’s the truth? Who are the lambs being lead to slaughter? Are the cops any better than the criminals they seek to protect society from? Who can save Jay? Who will betray him? Who can he trust? Will his impassivity, his torpor, break? Will he act to save him self? Will someone intervene to protect him, or will he – can he, learn to save himself?
You have to really be okay with darkness to like this movie. I get queasy over it, mostly because they are not a lot of people to like, and the more likable someone is, the nastier the things in store for them are. This is a little bit what I imagine the highly acclaimed tv show The Wire is – something which, despite its rave reviews, I can’t bring myself to watch. But if you can get over that, or if you like that sort of thing, this is a really well made, really creepy movie with some fantastically chilling story-telling.
So why did I watch it, you might ask? The Oscar, of course, and in particular, the performance of Jacki Weaver as grandma Janine Cody. And man, is it a performance. She seems so warm – too warm, even, with those lingering kisses to her sons’ lips – and yet when her interests are threatened, is so very cold. Janine stands apart from her sons’ dealings, but as she reminds us, she’s been around a long time, and she knows how to play the game. It’s not that what the actress is given to do is so very difficult; it’s not like stuttering or learning ballet. It’s that we are struck dumb by the words that come out of her mouth – and yet, she makes us believe them. Weaver’s almost certain not to win (even in the most open of the acting categories), but this is one of those cases where it’s a true honor to be nominated. And it surely must be a nice moment for this Oz cinema veteran, enjoying international acclaim at a time of life when juicy roles for women are hard to find? (Then again, when are they ever easy to find? And so very rarely like this.)
What can I say in the end? If you enjoy seeing dog eat dog, you ought to visit Animal Kingdom.