The best indication of where Animal Kingdom's head is at comes when a SWAT team enters the room not with a bang, but a whimper. If there are shouts, they go unheard by us as we watch the members of the Cody clan slide effortlessly off the couch and onto their knees, lacing their fingers behind their heads without so much as batting an eye. For this group of armed robbers, it's all just dreary routine.
J (James Frecheville) is getting used to the swing of things around this Melbourne, Australia, household. After his mother dies from a heroin overdose, the soft-spoken teen is forced to move in with his doting grandmother (Jacki Weaver) and uncles (Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton and Ben Mendelsohn), an altogether insecure lot targeted by corrupt cops who aren't afraid to blow any of them away in naked daylight and plant a gun after the fact.
As J assures us through retrospective narration, none of this can end well: 'Crooks always come undone, always, one way or another.â?� Making his feature debut, writer-director David MichÃ´d skips the robberies and focuses on the inevitable reckoning that this family has brought upon themselves. The one man trying to help legitimize their business and minimize risks (Joel Edgerton) is taken out of the picture early on. Meanwhile, an unhinged Mendelsohn returns to the fold with retaliation in mind. As J attempts to come of age amongst a coked-out, gun-waving band of brothers, paranoia and punishment bear down on them all.
It feels both genuinely lived-in and slightly surreal, aided in no small part by Antony Partos' terrifically foreboding score and an entirely credible cast. J, so initially bland and admittedly invisible that even those automatic hand dryers refuse to acknowledge his presence, slowly but surely wises up to his role in the scheme of things as a brother-in-arms and a potential witness, and newcomer Frecheville underplays it enough that his eventual role in shit-meets-fan circumstances feels both surprising and unavoidable.
Mendelsohn carries a quiet menace reminiscent of Gary Oldman's earlier work, and Weaver tops that by hiding her disturbing level of devotion beneath a flurry of hugs and a perpetual smirk worthy of the Joker.
Probably the only familiar face around belongs to L.A. Confidential's Guy Pearce, playing an honest detective looking to save J from sharing the same fate as his relatives. Pearce's character spells out the implications of the title a bit too neatly during a Great Big Monologue, long after the opening credits have already spoken volumes with glimpses of proud lions and our criminals, seen holding up banks in surveillance footage, concealed behind jungle masks.
These predators are hiding every bit as much as they're baring their teeth, and MichÃ´d holds that sweaty, tense vibe until the bloody end.