If there existed a “Best Debut” category at any of the self-aggrandizing awards shows which infect popular consciousness during the winter months of the year, then David Michôd would be a shoe-in. His very first feature, Animal Kingdom, isn’t ostentatious or glitzy; it’s far too self-assured to rely on gimmicks, adroitly made with the confidence of a more veteran filmmaker. Pulling ahead of most of the pack in the accidental race to see who in 2010 can make the best crime film with ridiculous ease, it proves to be a gut-puncher of a picture, gritty, callous, and downright brutal when it needs to be.
Our protagonist is Josh “J” Cody (James Frecheville), a teen who winds up moving in with his grandmother Janine “Smurf” Cody (Jackie Weaver) after his mother dies of a heroine overdose. Josh knows his mom kept him away from Janine, as well as her brothers Darren, Craig, and Andrew/”Pope” (Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton, and Ben Mendelsohn, respectively), on purpose, and it’s all too apparent why once we learn of the Cody family’s notoriety in the criminal underground for bank robbery– and of the tectonic instability of their dynamic, seemingly brought on by the vigilantist and roguish behavior of the police’s armed robbery squad. Caught in between a conflict he has little hand in and stuck in a world he doesn’t understand, Josh has to struggle to survive when he doesn’t know who to turn to or trust.
Hence the movie’s title– Melbourne’s crime world is dog-eat-dog, survival of the fittest, where everyone from the law enforcers to the law makers to the murderers and thieves jockey for position to see who can make it through the day alive and in one piece and who just isn’t cut out for the life they’ve all chosen. Maybe at times Michôd drives his central metaphor home a bit more than necessary but for the most part it works and doesn’t assert itself too aggressively– Michôd shows how hard his film’s world is much more than he tells, and frankly, if the most amateur aspect of Michôd’s movie is the occasional employment of slightly over-cooked exposition, he’s already ahead of a lot of contemporary filmmakers in terms of knowing how to tell a trim, precise story.
That’s one of Animal Kingdom‘s greatest assets– it’s paced pitch-perfectly, taking its time to slow-burn through the plot and never letting its tension slacken and disengage us from our investment in its narrative. Michôd lets the film simmer, sweating crisis and suspense out of his material to achieve an escalating sense of dread and disquiet throughout. He hits paydirt a number of times, cashing in on that anxiety for truly startling, gripping moments, but he’s wise enough to know that those sorts of scenes really have to be earned, and so they each have maximum impact when they crop up, and devious enough to know how to misdirect us so as to really catch us off guard.
Refreshingly, most of the film’s drama is extracted not from watching crimes committed but from the behavior of the Cody clan in their bid to endure in a world growing increasingly hostile toward their existence. This isn’t about cops and robbers and the cat-and-mouse games played by both groups in the pursuit of outwitting each other, but rather about a family trying to figure out their own survival when the law is literally out for their blood. Unfortunately for him, Josh seems to be his relatives’ bargaining chip, the person who they choose to use as bait for Guy Pearce’s mustachioed senior officer, who leads the armed robbery force– a diversion, something to buy the Codys time. Animal Kingdom is much more about betrayal, and the combustion of Josh’s family, than it is about car chases or cleverly executed robberies, making it all the more compelling.
Michôd’s cast is uniformly strong, but Frecheville, Mendelsohn, and Weaver each take a pretty big piece of the cake. Frecheville, a first timer surrounded by much more established talents, particularly shines as our hero;it’s easy to pity Josh and sympathize with his dilemma, despite his perpetual teenage apathy and general disinterest and disconnection from everything and everyone around him. When first we meet him, he stares blankly at a game show while his mother’s vitals dwindle right before his eyes; it’s hard to believe that Josh cares about anything even as the EMTs cart her body away and he’s forced to make that difficult phone call to Janine and ask for help. In other words, Josh could have turned out to be a completely insufferable lead, but Frecheville plays the character’s immaturity and worldly inexperience perfectly and knows how to unleash Josh’s emotions when the moment calls for it. His brief breakdown in the third act in particular will cause the hairs on your arms to stand on end.
Mendelsohn and Weaver fill out the film’s real heavies, “Pope” and Janine respectively, both bringing menace to their roles but utilizing it in totally different ways. Mendelsohn plays full-on psychopath through a totally hushed filter; he’s unbalanced, capable of cruel and senseless acts of random violence, the kind of guy you expect to go on the warpath at every turn but who only does occasionally. When he does, the shift in the character’s countenance visceral and frightening. Weaver’s more affable and charismatic, but all of her sweet talk belies a deviously clever mind and a lethal temperament. In her fashion she’s almost as frightening as Uncle Andrew, though for totally different reasons. Janine plays the sweet old grandma routine one minute and cold and calculating the next, quite happy to sell her kin up the river for the good of the rest of the family. (Such as it is.)
But amidst treachery and unpredictability, the Cody clan is just that: a family. Dysfunctional for certain, but a family nonetheless, and despite their treacheries and what they ultimately put Josh through, Michôd seems to want us to care about what happens to them in a world where the police don’t respect the laws they supposedly uphold. Animal Kingdom isn’t just about Josh being put through the ringer by the rest of the Codys, or about cops being pitted against thieves, it’s about the disintegration of an entire family unit. Michôd’s clear talent for storytelling and plotting allow for the narrative’s numerous layers to breathe, instead of smothering them and making the film feel compressed; he never rushes any of these elements, and his measured approach to directing Animal Kingdom yields a robust and immensely gratifying experience from a first-time director and one of the best movies of 2010 from any director. Check this film out as soon as you can, and make sure to take note of Michôd; if this is what he’s capable of in his first go-round, we’d all better prepare ourselves for when he releases his sophomore feature.