Animal Kingdom

Writer-director David Michôd’s drama about a crime family in crisis wants to be a matter-of-fact rendering of deception, tit-for-tat murder, and police intrigue. By muting his story in mellow tones and an even mellower style, Michôd’s going for Roman Polanski’s bygone psychodramas – so he claims in the press notes (though, to me, his movie felt more in the vein of a ‘70s era Altman or Ashby). In any case, it’s all for naught because “Animal Kingdom” simply doesn’t have a compelling enough central character, and its story isn’t interesting enough to warrant our attention.

After his mother dies of a drug overdose, teenager Joshua (James Frecheville) moves in with his uncles Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford) and their doting mother Smurf (Jackie Weaver, and, no, she isn’t dyed blue). It’s a strange home, not least because of Smurf’s almost-Oedipal attachment to her sons. Theirs is a tight-knit cabal of bank robbers on the brink of unraveling: strung-out Craig has taken to moonlighting as a dope dealer, and the family’s oldest son, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), is being hunted by the police. The robbers’ ringleader Barry (Joel Edgerton), smart and cautious, wants to go straight after his latest heist. But when the cops on Pope’s tail gun Barry down, Pope and Darren stage a retaliatory killing against the cops responsible. A murder investigation ensues led by a mustache-sporting Guy Pearce as the conscientious Detective Leckie.

Leckie zeroes in on Joshua as the most viable witness in an investigation riddled with corruption. The callow and terrified Joshua, however, struggles with where his loyalties lie. And once matters turn personal for him, he goes from pawn to player in the plot’s legal and criminal convolutions.

Michôd’s metaphor of the cops-and-robbers world as an “animal kingdom” is inviting but laid on rather thick. We want to scream “We get it already!” as Michôd offers up such images as Craig scampering away like a wild animal into the open veldt while a herd of rifle-toting police close in on him. And, later, when Leckie explains to Joshua how human affairs are a ruthless game of “survival of the fittest.” Such high-minded analogies only work in proportion to the power and persuasiveness of the story at hand. But “Animal Kingdom” is more a trip to the petting zoo than a foray into the treacherous savannah of high and low crime.

The direction, meanwhile, is a point-and-shoot affair, driven by an ethos to let the story emerge organically from the screen, like a sculpture in relief. Alas, what we get is a monochromatic watercolor of a bland subject as the story lacks the suspense and spark to hold our attention. Frecheville’s on-screen presence doesn’t help matters. The actor mugs and mumbles his way through what feels like a catatonic state, such is the lack for charisma and vitality in the performance. Thankfully for both Michôd and the audience, two performances partially compensate: The first comes from the always-excellent Pearce, and the other from Mendelsohn as the fugitive Pope. Mendelsohn masks Pope behind suburban niceties, when, in fact, his character is a serpent, venomous and eager to strike. The showcase role, perhaps, belongs to Weaver as the Lady Macbeth-like Smurf, all tenderness and motherly cheer on the outside, but on the inside, a lioness ready do whatever it takes to protect her pride. It’s a performance whose dichotomies show too easily, though, and which becomes another of the script’s crass attempts to expand its central metaphor.

Grade: C

Directed by: David Michôd
Written by: David Michôd
Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce, James Frecheville, Jacki Weaver, Dan Wyllie, Luke Ford, Laura Wheelwright

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