The film is simple in set up and scale but hugely ambitious in terms of the range of character complexity and the emotions it looks to portray. Following the death of his mother, as a result of a heroin overdose, Josua Cody (James Frecheville), or “J” as he prefers, moves in with his grandmother Janine ‘Smurf’ Cody (Jacki Weaver) who along with her sons oversees a failing criminal empire. Part of the reason for the family’s failings is down to the heat that the ringleader and eldest son Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) attracts prevents them from conducting their business with the efficiency that they would like. Shortly after the death of J’s mother another member of the family is murdered they decide to take revenge which further exacerbates their predicament by attracting increased attention from the police. What follows is a game of cat and mouse between the family and the police as each party look to gain the upper hand.
It’s clear from the start that something is amiss with the family as all of the characters deal with their own struggles, both internal and external, as the heat is on and cracks start to appear there’s a strong sense that they’re not as organised as they should be. Other issues also include a rather bizarre relationship between the matriarch ‘Smurf’ and her sons, full of lingering kisses and seats on their laps her relationship with her boys often borders on the incestuous.
None of the characters are given the short shrift here as all of them are given layers of complexity and intrigue to make them fully rounded, interesting and perhaps most importantly interesting. Almost all have an upbeat demeanour and when taken at face value they seem rather affable however when the cracks show you definitely know this is a family you don’t want to be on the wrong side of.
The actors do a great job of portraying the complexity of their characters and the film is littered with scenes that are beautifully scripted and acted; a particular favourite of mine is a scene between Ben Mendelsohn’s Pope and Luke Ford’s Darren. Pope being the elder brother singles out Darren as he is making himself a drink and begins by gently questioning his sexuality before reaching a point where he has manipulated him to the degree where he could get him to do absolutely anything he requests.
Another standout is the scene where Guy Pearce’s Detective Leckie explains to J his place in the world and the family, which is presumably the reason behind the film’s title. Although these are particular highlights the film is filled with scenes of a similar standard that showcase naturalistic interactions between the cast and a keen ear for authentic dialogue from Michôd.
It’s a film steeped in real life influences with it being based loosely on the Pettingill crime family who were involved in Walsh Street shootings in 1988, the set up of which is used here. Despite having real world influences the film never seems exploitative of its source and stands incredibly well as a standalone tale of family and morality as well as a rough around the edges coming of age tale.
Even with its menacing elements Animal Kingdom has moments of levity throughout and a balance between the bleak and humorous is another one of the film’s strengths when it comes to portraying real life. The opening scene presents you with a great example of this as J clearly unaware how to conduct himself following his mother’s overdose has some quite humorous consequences.
For me when a film can immerse you to the point where you forget that you’re watching a performance; it’s the sign that it’s something very special indeed and that’s exactly what Animal Kingdom does. It doesn’t bombard you with back story to emphasise the nefarious activities of the Cody family; instead you’re thrown into the dynamic through the eyes of J. Sometimes this can make it an uncomfortable watch but it’s never anything less than utterly compelling.
I always struggle when awarding films a five star rating but when you watch something multiple times over a weekend and you still discover little details and the film retains its impact it’s entirely justified. I can honestly say that Animal Kingdom is one of the best films that I have seen for quite some time; paced scripted and acted to perfection, if you haven’t had the pleasure of it yet; do seek it out as it really is a treat.
After gushing extensively over the film itself it’s only fair that I comment on the quality of the Blu-ray transfer. Whilst this is far from demo quality material (it simply isn’t that kind of film) there is very little to fault on either the audio or visual aspect of the transfer. There’s an incredible amount of detail in each scene and frame and the quality of the picture enables you to see the clear amount of attention to detail in the homes of the characters and how these vary according to the status of the resident. A lot of the film plays out at night and in these scenes there is no problem determining exactly what is happening. Sound is equally solid; there’s little to fault with neither the score nor the sourced music intruding on the dialogue.
In terms of extras there’s plenty to get stuck into the highlight of which is undoubtedly the Making Of which clocks in at over an hour and is both engrossing and informative. Two commentary tracks are available; one with Michôd and another with the cast and crew which elaborate further on the Making Of and provide further insight into the film’s production.
Overall it’s a solid package that more than justifies the price lift over DVD.