One thing you can say about the films of David Michôd—the guy certainly seems to believe in the benefits of strong alpha figures. Or, more accurately, in the detrimental effects lacking one has upon young men. He flirts with this theme in 2014’s The Rover—you could argue that Robert Pattinson’s Rey does indeed have a strong surrogate father in Guy Pearce’s Eric, just the wrong strong surrogate father—but a vacuum of dominance stands as the unspoken impetus in almost all of the ills addressed in Michôd’s stunning 2010 feature debut, Animal Kingdom.
The film’s title reflects this want of structure—a pack needs an alpha. And, while the various thieves and murderers of the Cody family do have a forceful leader in conniving, cutthroat matriarch Janine (Jacki Weaver), it also becomes clear that her form of leadership is based more in blind devotion to protecting her boys than in guiding their path. Hers is a fierce, brutal love, no doubt, but also an achingly idealized one, where her only response to a child in the grip of coke-induced paranoia, or another making increasingly poor decisions after discontinuing his psyche meds, is to give a mild reprimand and then a boys-will-be-boys shrug. It’s not her children that are the problem, it’s the world around them. And it’s this willful blindness that makes Janine such a terrifying presence.
Into this fatherless obliviousness comes young J (James Frecheville), grandson of Janine and recently orphaned thanks to his mother’s fatal overdose. J finds himself immersed in the shady dealings of his uncles, a band of low-level thugs all struggling to stay afloat despite increased police attention to their various enterprises. Leading the group is Baz (Joel Edgerton), related to the family not by blood but by business, standing as the stabilizing force for the rest of the brothers and Janine. Diametrically opposite of Baz in temperament and philosophy is Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), whose preternatural dead-eyed calm can’t hide a steady flow of malevolence seeping from his façade. Caught between the two are Pope’s younger brothers, the tentative Darren (Luke Ford) and the chaotic Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), two sides of the same damaged coin. And, of course, hovering above them all is Janine, the enabling goddess, cheering on their exploits and delivering them the occasional squirm-inducing kiss on the lips.
Life has left J emotionally stunted and passive almost to the point of inertness, so entering the criminal world of his uncles is less a choice on his part than an acceptance, a tacit consent to his own lack of agency. He admits as much, saying “Kids are just wherever they are and they do just whatever they’re doin’, you know? This is where I was and this is what I was doin’. After my mum died, this was just the world I got thrown into.” Frecheville channels this passivity with a blank expression and a detached monotone, playing J as a wallflower, mildly happy when he gets a couple words of praise or kindness from Darren or Baz, but mostly content to lay low and let the family business unfold at arm’s length.
Yet, once the tensions between the cops and the family boil over, J gets sucked into Pope’s miasmic quest for revenge, or self-destruction, or whatever the hell it is that gets Pope off. He’s an enigma, a psychopath with no clear purpose other than to get even with whoever’s the latest to slight him. But Pope’s also naïve, a real forest-for-the-trees guy who thinks he’s the smartest one in the room when he’s really just the scariest. It’s the kind of role Ben Mendelsohn is born to play, understated and oozing menace, where his softspoken manner can cover up a vicious streak more misanthropic than the crowd at an Ann Coulter book signing. Mendelsohn really seems to be carving out a niche with this type of performance—there are echoes of Pope all over his turn as Danny in the criminally overlooked Netflix series Bloodline—and the sheer caged-beast unpredictability of Pope forms the backbone of the constant dread that props up Animal Kingdom.
Michôd wisely keeps this family tension as unsentimental as possible, refusing to allow J to develop any deep-set allegiances to anyone. J’s the outsider, thrust into a situation he has neither the intelligence nor experience to navigate with any competence, rather proving to be an obstacle to nearly every other character’s agenda. Despite the favorable comparisons among a few critics, Animal Kingdom almost comes across as the anti-Goodfellas, where the young protégé gets brought into a life of crime he has no desire or ability to pursue, where the golden days are not only long gone, but never truly existed in the first place. Michôd frames his crime drama as entropy, where the arc has no ups and downs but only a slow, inexorable decline, centered upon a protagonist who is hopelessly outmatched at every turn.
I know, this description makes Animal Kingdom seem like the ultimate downer, a miserable slog towards disaster, yet Michôd’s wickedly twisty script and entrancing direction keeps the film zooming forward at a dangerous, nervewracking pace. And, above all else, there’s Jacki Weaver as Janine, providing the benchmark for the role of mère fatale. Weaver, nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance, is a sight to behold, a woman desperate to be the pillar of her family, yet too devoted to them to see the self-destructive spiral they all descend. She does her damnedest to be the mother hen, to reassure their actions and pick up the pieces from their failures, but there’s a frightening wildness in her eyes, a predator’s volatility that implies the coldhearted calculations playing out behind her genial demeanor. She’s brilliant, and had this role been in an American film and not a buzzy but little-seen Australian crime flick, she’d have won that statuette for sure.
At points you can see Michôd’s influences peak through—he’s got a Fincher-esque way of using palette and light to create an oppressive mood, while he seems to be of the Michael Mann school of naturalistic violence—yet for the most part Animal Kingdom feels wholly original, a gloriously inversion of the coming-of-age gangster story. It maintains an air of bleak harshness from the stark opening shot to the shocking final minute, presenting as unromantic and brutal a tale as the name insinuates. Take away the alpha, Michôd seems to be saying, and all you’re left with is a bunch of jackals.