Australian writer/director David Michod hits those breath-holding highs often enough that his debut feature Animal Kingdom scores, despite a noticeable hole at its center. His story follows 17-year-old Josh Cody (James Frecheville)—who goes by J—as he goes to live with his grandmother and uncles after the death of his mother. There he gets an introduction to the family business—which happens to be armed robbery. And when corrupt cops start making life uncomfortable for the Codys, J gets a crash course in the way the family looks after its own.
Michod puts together a terrific supporting cast of fascinating characters: the high-strung Craig (Sullivan Stapleton); cold-eyed, unpredictable Uncle Pope (Ben Mendelsohn); and Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce), who tries to turn J around to testify against his family. Best of all is Jacki Weaver as Cody matriarch Janine, whose mouth-kisses of her sons are just the first indication that she views her motherly role with a certain … intensity. The impressive performances combine with Michod’s keen directorial eye to create scenes with combustible intensity.
The story revolves around J, however, and that’s where Animal Kingdom misses its chance at greatness. The passivity we see in J from the outset—where he can barely turn away from Deal or No Deal on television while paramedics try to resuscitate his mother—carries through most of the film. And that becomes a problem as J becomes more calculating, and the evolution needs to make sense. It’s never quite as fascinating watching J figure out how to survive as it is watching everyone around him—or even watching a car’s magnificently agonizing crawl down a driveway.
James Frecheville, Jacki Weaver, Ben Mendelsohn