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Animal Kingdom | reviews, news & interviews

Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom

A debut director's portrait of Australian low-lifes evokes Polanski

Cunning and adrenalin: Sullivan Stapleton and Jacki Weaver in Animal Kingdom

The animals 17-year-old Josh Cody has to survive are his own criminal family. The Codys are hardly the Corleones. Led by sweetly smiling, grandmotherly matriarch Smurf (Jacki Weaver) as they fume and feud in Melbourne’s suburbs, this motley gang of five’s only outstanding quality is their ruthlessness. Deposited with them when his mum overdoses on drugs, the shy teenager navigates between armed robber Uncle Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) and wired drug dealer Uncle Craig (Sullivan Stapleton).

Senior detective Leckie (a moustached, understated Guy Pearce) would also like a word, as Josh tries to survive a fearful world with no exit.

The Codys are cornered when Josh joins them. Middle-aged Pope and Baz’s bank-robbing m.o. is now an unprofitable vestige of the past, while Craig jitters high on his drug supply. When detectives execute a Cody on a street corner, they retaliate in kind, a stubborn, suicidal gambit pitting them against the whole police force. There’s a chaotic shoot-out in the farm where Craig’s gone to ground, but the violence is mostly swift and inescapable, just a matter of time for everyone. From Harry Lime being hunted like a rat through Vienna’s sewers to the life-ruining psychopath Moat’s stand-off by a river, it’s hard not to empathise with criminals as the law closes in. Debuting writer-director David Michod shows such short-term, volatile lives in close-up, running on exhaustible supplies of cunning (all Ma Smurf’s) and adrenalin.

Physical threat is lightly coiled in wiry Uncle Pope’s needling words to the hulking Darren, as he tries to “establish” if he’s gay. Funny as the scene is, you wonder what he’s trying to provoke, who’s in danger and from where, when the white line of tension Pope lives on crosses into carnage. Josh finds respite with girlfriend Nicky (Laura Wheelwright, pictured below with James Frecheville) and her comforting, middle-class family. But just as he asks her well-padded dad to drive him to safety, dad’s still carefully exiting his driveway when Pope runs into him like a rhino. There are worse things waiting for this blameless family, as the fug of Pope’s paranoia coalesces into an awful murder. Josh’s last escape seems to be into the arms of detective Leckie’s investigation. But when Melbourne’s corrupted police betray him, Josh enters savage adulthood by trying to save himself.

animal_4There are real-life antecedents in matriarch Judy Moran’s criminal Melbourne clan, whose more internecine conflicts left 30 dead, including most of the Morans, making the family crime-page celebrities. Animal Kingdom also recalls Rowan Woods’s The Boys (1998), a quietly terrifying time-bomb of male violence set the day a jailed criminal returns to his family in Sydney’s bleak suburbs. Michod is more interested in genre, but consciously eschews the satiric pastiche of Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, aiming instead for Polanski’s subterranean menace. The mood’s certainly more Repulsion than Reservoir Dogs, with an oppressive tone the family’s faint absurdity can’t dispel. The fences and back-alleys behind Melbourne’s prim Victorian facade become memorable stalking-grounds in a city where Michod finds un-Australian wells of shadow. A perfect cast complete this stylish, authentic portrait of criminal doom.

Watch the trailer for Animal Kingdom

There are worse things waiting for this blameless family, as the fug of Pope’s paranoia coalesces into an awful murder

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