While most popular films about the criminal underworld depict the rise and fall of a certain criminal (or group of criminals), "Animal Kingdom" only focuses on the fall. In fact, this crime family never seemed to have much of a rise anyway.
"Animal Kingdom" begins in a small apartment where young Aussie Joshua "J" Cody (James Frecheville) sits near his dead mother, who has just overdosed. J is handed over to live with his grandmother (Jacki Weaver). She presides over J's uncles, all of whom exist in the criminal underworld, each with a varying degree of insanity. After his uncles are involved in a standoff that ends with multiple dead cops, the family sinks even lower, and are threatened by a suspicious detective (Guy Pearce). After the detective offers J a way out of this troubled life, J faces two options: loyalty or self-preservation. Let the puzzle come together.
"Animal Kingdom" is a great example of a 21st century crime film. It certainly has many Americanized elements to it, yet filmmakers in Hollywood could definitely learn something from director David Michod. Everything he puts in the film helps to create such an unsettling atmosphere of constant fear and paranoia. His gloomy lighting choices and never-ending long shots are absolutely uncanny.
Then there is the way Michod handles violence. Every bullet wound is extremely quick, unexpected, and unsettling. A lot of films today show violence in a manner that is so quick, that you can barely comprehend it. However, in the typical action film, this is usually done to accommodate the modern ADD state of mind. However, Michod uses this fast pace so the viewer becomes more accustomed to the violence and therefore, more accustomed to the idea that this is a world where violence is no unusual thing; it can occur literally at any second.
Not to mention, the film also pulls off a very early in the film twist in which a main character is killed off. Like "Psycho" and "Children of Men" before it, this creates a sense that in this story, none of the characters are safe, no matter what the conventions of film tell us.
The entirety of "Animal Kingdom" certainly lives up to the metaphor presented in its title. What this film presents to us is that humankind is an animal kingdom: the strong succeed, the weak die off, and eventually, everyone finds their place. The film carries many haunting symbolic images to match this metaphor, such as flies swarming around a dead body which lies face down in an open field.
The film's ensemble of Australia's finest contribute to the animalistic mood. Weaver, as the over protective matriarch, got an Oscar nomination for a very good reason. She makes it impossible to tell whether her character is simply a good mother trying to protect her family, or a woman with very bad intentions. No matter what, she is always able to hide some sort of lingering darkness under a nice granny smile.
Meanwhile, the relatively new Frecheville gives a very quiet performance, yet it is one that shows a lot of inner pain and confusion. Meanwhile, Pearce continues to impress in another small, yet very important role. Here, he showed a rare ability to seamlessly deliver long, deep monologues. The most memorable is his speech about the animal kingdom and how humans fit into it (briefly mentioned above).
What I liked best about "Animal Kingdom" was something it did, something that American movies rarely do: it never glorifies crime. For every American crime movie that shows the consequences of being a criminal, they also have to show so much good coming out of it. However, "Animal Kingdom" removes all the glitz and glamour. It may be easy, it may have some positive outcomes, but in the end, there is no glory in crime. The criminal world (at least in Australia), is a little, well, animalistic. In the end, everyone is simply just trying to do what they can to survive.
If You Liked This Movie, You'll Also Like: Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Trainspotting, The Proposition