Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn is at his manic best as the 'Pope', Andrew Cody, in Animal Kingdom. Writer/director David Michôd has capitalised on the success of the recent Underbelly TV series to bring us a gripping underworld-family drama. The story is based on the murder of two policemen in Walsh Street, Melbourne in 1988 and the notorious Pettingill family.
The very strong Australian cast is led by newcomer James Frecheville, as Josh Cody, who steals the glory. He has the unenviable task of carrying off a degree of sanity in a swamp of psychopaths. Joel Edgerton as family guardian Barry Brown walks the fine line between these with aplomb.
This is a film where the focus is squarely on the eyes of its characters. The dialogue is secondary. Jackie Weaver as matriarch Janine Cody is an exception. Her obsessive need to talk through the dramas would seem false if the archetype gangster mum Kath Pettingill had not done so very publicly at the time of the real life murders and trial. Apparently there is even an Oz Un-reality TV series on infamous crime families. If I knew its name, I wouldn’t provide a link. Have to draw the line somewhere.
On obvious question that is partially explored by Animal Kingdom is the nature of these institutions. What makes them tick: family ethos, loyalty, fear, herd instinct, psychotic genes, the business ethic? We don’t hear the Sopranos excuse that they are soldiers fighting an unjust system in some kind of class war. It would have made a better film if this exploration had been deeper. We certainly get a very different take on our suburban neighbours.
The other disturbing side of this movie is the police corruption. Crooked cops involved in the drug industry are universal. However, the Armed Robbery Squad that is portrayed as totally out of control has its roots firmly in the actual events of the 1980s. Senior Sergeant Nathan Leckie is a standout white knight of law enforcement in a sea of black. It isn’t a role that enables Guy Pearce to shine but keeps it straight and to the point.
The judicial system also takes a hammering. The coke-sniffing criminal lawyer, in both sense of the word, is also based on a real person. The cynical and amoral female barrister comes straight from British crime television.
This is a quality movie. Animal Kingdom maintains its restrained intensity to the last shot. Pun intended.