Right from the opening shot, Australian David Michod’s Animal Kingdom steeps viewers in the curiously uncurious, disaffected life of Josh “J” Cody. That shot shows J watching Australia’s Deal or No Deal while his mother lies unconscious next to him on the couch. When the paramedics walk in he calmly informs them that his mother has overdosed on heroin. Later he bluntly informs his grandmother Janine, whom he calls “Grandma Smurf” of her daughter’s death before asking to go live with her. It’s only when he asks if she still remembers where they live that we get a hint at the complicated family dynamics about to come into play.
J’s family turns out to be a criminal enterprise, under close watch from the quick-to-shoot Armed Robbery branch of the police. His Uncle Andrew, known as “Pope” professionally, is on the lam. His other uncles include a drug dealer and Pope’s apprentice, while Pope’s partner is a strong presence. J is not kept in the dark about his relatives’ occupations, but he nevertheless lives among them and even brings his girlfriend Nicole into the house.
After a brazen act of violence by the police, J’s uncles plot their revenge, involving an unwitting J in a minor capacity out of necessity. When suspicion alights on the family, J is forced to answer questions from the police. (One of the cops is played by Guy Pearce.) He bluffs ignorance, but his uncles aren’t satisfied that they can trust him.
The rest of the film builds suspense out of J’s well-established character. Having shown his withdrawal and aloofness, the audience believes him capable of anything. Will he turn in his uncles to try and escape this dangerous situation, or become more firmly entrenched in their criminal lifestyle? Pearce’s detective character understands his dilemma and frames the question as a matter of determining his place in the Animal Kingdom, i.e. is J one of the strong creatures who can take care of himself, or is he weak enough to need the protection of the strong?
Jacki Weaver received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for this role, and for the first seventy-five minutes or so it was hard to see why. Sure, she had played up her character’s creepy-close relationship with her sons and her sense of righteous denial, but it had been a small part. Then, in one devastating scene, she nearly makes the movie her own. Weaver plays her character’s rationalization expertly, and scares the crap out of you while doing it. It’s a commanding performance.
Animal Kingdom is a very clever blend of crime and suspense, with twists that don’t wrench the plot out of believability but serve the story well.