As movie catch phrases go, it’s up there with “I drink your milkshake” from There Will Be Blood. Janine “Smurf” Cody (Jacki Weaver), the Lady MacBethian mother of a dysfunctional family of Melbourne criminals in Animal Kingdom, stares at a crooked cop — her eyes alight with knowingness as she smiles — and states, “And you’ve done some bad things, sweetie.”
God, you think, she seems so delighted to say that, so turned on. What kind of person is she? As played by the late-middle-aged Weaver, a slightly heavier version of Beverly D’Angelo, she’s a blonde-haired matron who is part Carmela Soprano and part Angie Dickinson’s Big Bad Mama. She’s ultimately very dangerous, yes, but also nice, not imposing or intruding until circumstances demand it. Her domain is a suburban home also occupied by her three adult-age sons, who are involved in armed robbery. Her loving relationship with her troubled sons seems beyond merely supportive — it’s flirtatious.
If the Australian criminal world — and life itself — can really be compared to the animal kingdom, then she is the Lion Queen. And with her colorful wardrobe, she is also part peacock.
Director David Michod and cinematographer Adam Arkapow first shoot her swathed in dramatic blue light — climbing a stairway, slightly out of breath, announcing her arrival.
She has come to an apartment building to rescue her 17-year-old grandson “J,” a tall, quiet young man who, as the film starts, is sitting on the sofa blankly watching a game show while a woman besides him naps. It’s a scene of blissful domestic banality, something out of an R. Crumb comic.
Then, men in uniform stride past the picture window and rap on the screen door. “What’s she taken,” they ask? “Heroin,” he replies. As they unsuccessfully try to revive the slumping woman, he stands by, turning from that scene to the TV. That’s his mother dying, and he’s an innocent lamb lost between illusion and reality.
All alone, he calls grandma Smurf, whom he barely knows — she and her daughter fought years ago over a card game. She cheerily comes and brings him home (she doesn’t seem to care about her daughter’s death) and asks her sons to welcome and protect him.
Her brood tries to, but they are not an easy bunch at accepting strangers. The worst is Andrew, known as “Pope,” a dead-eyed psychotic with a hair-trigger temper, chillingly underplayed by Ben Mendelsohn to exude menace and elicit fear without going over the top.
He subtly taunts fragile, repressed younger brother Darren (Luke Ford). The sleazy, tattooed Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is a drugged-out loose cannon who’s always close to a meltdown.
The brothers have a friend-in-crime, a handsome family man named Barry Brown (Joel Edgerton, looking like a Disco-era Barry Gibb), who would like to move from this risky profession to the stock market. When something unexpected happens to him, it sets off a chain of uncontrollable events as the clan seeks revenge on those responsible — in this case, some innocent cops. And “J,” still the lamb, has to figure out what to do.
This frames the narrative: Can “J” break free of this toxic family bond to help a paternal police detective (Guy Pearce) bring them to justice? And can he do it soon enough to save his young, rebellious girlfriend Nicki (Laura Wheelwright) from an increasingly depraved “Pope?”
That’s maybe a traditional crime-film story arc, but calling Animal Kingdom a traditional crime film is misleading. It’s not soaked in blood and mayhem at the expense of character development. It doesn’t aspire to the epic sweep of The Godfather or Martin Scorsese’s major mafia dramas. It actually could better be compared with the recent Winter’s Bone — a teenager, left to his own devices by a parent’s desertion, has to negotiate survival in an alien environment where bad people hide in plain sight.
It also heralds the international arrival of a very talented and assured Australian writer/director, Michod. The film won this year’s Grand Jury Prize — Drama in the Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema competition and is based on a true incident. Michod is very self-assured. Except for some brief narration by “J,” exposition is stripped to a minimum; scenes and plot developments are edited to move as quickly as possible while maintaining overall coherence.
That’s not to say it’s perfect. Michod as screenwriter has trouble establishing the rules of engagement for his characters, especially the police. They act like cold-blooded executioners in some scenes, yet in others are frustrated bureaucrats in the face of legal maneuvering by the Weavers’ corrupt lawyer (Dan Wyllie).
But the director’s feel for naturalism overrides those rough patches. He has a flair for finding the perfect tone for his most audacious scenes. The aforementioned opening one is slow and infused with pathos. However, one that closes the film is sudden, shocking and unforgettable.
Animal Kingdom is unforgettable, too. Grade: A-
Opens Sept. 10. Check out theaters and show times, see the trailer and get theater details here.