Animal Kingdom 2010 Australia (113 minutes) written and directed by David Michôd.
This Australian film has been compared to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), but it has none of the snappy dialog and humor, style and situations that make the criminal life look like a good lark.
If anything, Animal Kingdom has a documentary feel, beginning with a teenager sitting on a couch next to a dozing woman, watching a daytime television game show. When two uniformed paramedics arrive, we find out that the dozing woman is the boy’s mother overdosed on heroin.
The full shock of this scene is best left to the viewer.
The broader context of this story is that a family of violent career criminals is pursued aggressively by a rogue police unit that would just as soon kill as capture them.
The unstable, depressive Andrew ‘Pope’ Cody (Ben Mendelsohn) and cocaine-fortified Craig Cody (Sullivan Stapleton) are especially on edge after their associate Barry ‘Baz’ Brown (Joel Edgerton) is gunned down unarmed by police in broad daylight.
The ‘boys’ hang at the house of their widowed mother, Janine ‘Grandma Smurf’ Cody (Jacki Weaver), with their younger brother Darren (Luke Ford). Weaver does a grand turn as an iron middle finger inside the Smurf doll she plays: a heartless sentimentalist who seems to enjoy ‘being around her boys’ a smooch too much.
Into this mix comes 17-year-old Joshua ‘J’ Cody (17-year-old James Frecheville in his first billed role). Joshua does not realize at the time that the reason he does not know his mother’s family is because they scared her and she tried to keep him away from them.
Unlike Goodfellas’ Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) who moons at becoming one of the respected and cool ‘made guys’ in the neighborhood, Joshua follows along like the teenager he is, getting involved in the life around him without appearing to be especially interested in it. He speaks of his earlier life in a voiceover:
‘Kids just are wherever they are and they just do whatever they’re doing, you know? This is where I was and this is what I was doing.’
There is no gratuitous violence and sex in this movie. Rather, it is a dark, gut-wrenching family drama that shows what real people—some sociopathic—do with blood on their minds and weapons in their hands.
It also is one of the more realistic cinematic portrayals of the criminal justice system: a tough game, where ‘good and bad’ and ‘winning and losing’ are all relative.
What helps make this portrayal work well is a subdued turn by Guy Pearce as Detective Senior Sergeant Nathan Leckie trying to get Joshua to turn state’s evidence against his uncles, and the uncles’ lawyers, Ezra White (Dan Wyllie) and his colleague Justine Hopper (Anna Lise Phillips), the barrister, or lawyer who represents them at trial.
‘Good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ operate in the same environment and often come from the same place. The police are not necessarily the good guys, but both good and dirty cops are backed by the full power of the state. The bad guys make their living on the wrong side of the law. The game has its own set of rules apart from the criminal code. Despite police frustration at the fancy footwork of the bad guys’ pricey and clever lawyers, the rules and the law are stacked heavily in their favor.
The bad guys’ ‘wins’ in this game are as short-term as their ill-gotten gains. The news media, not to mention many movies, make much of the big scores and seemingly unconscionable acquittals of the ‘guilty’ at trial.
At best, the bad guys and their self-serving lawyers only win heavily publicized small battles in a much larger war of attrition that they know they never can win, against an adversary that deals the game with comparably unlimited resources—not to mention time and the law of averages in its favor.
When Leckie puts pressure on the family to break his investigation, the uncles realize that this boy they really do not know—and in whom Leckie seems interested—has been hanging around the house a lot with his girlfriend Nicole (Laura Wheelwright). They have no idea what these kids know and might tell police, despite their lawyer’s instruction to Joshua to say nothing. Things start to undo.
In a scene early in the story reminiscent of Goodfellas, Joshua expresses his uncles’ fear in a retrospective voiceover spoken in a stage whisper during a deft edit of the fatherly Baz returning to his suburban home from a run. Baz drops off cash, kisses his wife, and then checks police surveillance in front of the house:
‘[T]hey were all scared, even if they didn’t show it. Even if they didn’t know it exactly. Even if they were having to do what crooks do all the time, which is block out the thing they must know. They must know it. Which is, that crooks always come undone. Always. One way or another.’
Joshua is justifiably as scared of Leckie and the police as he is of his uncles and their lawyers (but unfortunately not Grandma Smurf). What he draws from his exchanges with each of them is that their primary interests and concerns are not in his best interests.
He is forced to be as clear and honest as he can with himself about the true nature of his situation. His coming of age is that he must exercise grownup judgment in order to save his life.