In Animal Kingdom's opening scene, a teenager sits in a daze, staring at the TV while an older woman lies motionless on the sofa beside him. Emergency services arrive, and we quickly learn that Joshua (James Frecheville) – or 'J' as he is more commonly known – is sitting next to his mother, who has just died of an overdose, but as the medic ask him questions, his eyes keep wandering back to the banality of a TV quiz show. J never quite snaps out of this glassy-eyed, monosyllabic state in Animal Kingdom, which is an obstacle that David Michôd's otherwise impressive debut struggles to overcome. The film is a gripping, intense drama about a family of criminals, but when we meet the rest of J's extended family, we instantly realise that they are all far more compelling as characters than he is, meaning the film often feels like it is lacking a central motor.
We meet the Cody family when J is collected by his grandmother Janine (Jacki Weaver), whom his protective mother kept him away from for many years. Janine is a smiling maternal figure with a hard edge, and it's clear from the outset that she will do anything to protect "her boys." J's uncles are all mixed up in criminal activity or drugs to some degree, and although he is initially a detached outsider, J eventually finds himself being drawn into the family business. Michôd is less interested in the Codys' crimes than he is in their complex family dynamics, though. The only bank heist in the movie occurs in grainy CCTV footage over the opening credits, with much of their behaviour outside the home subsequently consisting of cat-and-mouse games with the police, who sit and watch, waiting for the Codys to slip up. The only criminal plan we see them execute is an ambush that occurs as retaliation for the murder of a family member, with both the original killing and the revenge being handled in a brutally swift manner by David Michôd.
In his first feature, Michôd shows a confident command of his craft. He consistently gives potentially humdrum scenes an extra edge through his smart camerawork, effective editing and skilful sound design, generating a palpable sense of tension and foreboding, and he has clearly thought long and hard about skipping or subverting the narrative beats we expect. Sure, there are scenes here of police interrogations, lawyer-led shenanigans and betrayals within the clan, but Animal Kingdom manages to impose a rhythm all of its own on the drama, and it makes for quietly compelling viewing. Michôd also does excellent work with most of his actors, drawing a consistent level of performance from an ensemble that includes Guy Pearce, Joel Edgerton and Luke Ford, but two performances are clear standouts.
Jacki Weaver has already received widespread acclaim and an Oscar nomination for her performance as Janine 'Smurf' Cody, and she merits such praise for a handful of key scenes in the latter half of the movie, as her character begins taking control of the situation and manipulating events to the Codys' advantage. Personally, however, I was more impressed by Ben Mendelsohn, whose cold-blooded, dead-eyed turn as 'Pope' Cody resonates long after the credits have rolled. He is responsible for the most disturbing scene in the film, a scene that reveals the true depths of his sociopathic nature, and the quiet, unhurried way he goes about his business makes him even more chilling. Frecheville never looks more out of his depth than when J is facing up to Pope, which unfortunately means some of the climactic scenes have little bite, but in the end, it's oddly easy to overlook the vacuum at the centre of Animal Kingdom. Everything around it is simply too good to resist.