If the emotional range of crime family films stretches from the operatic types of The Godfather to the viscerally felt human beings of GoodFellas, Animal Kingdom strives to find the middle ground between the two. That's not an entirely fair assessment, I grant you, as David Michôd's film cares less for the crime than the characters, but then the same was true of those landmark entries in the genre as well. Unfortunately, if a medium between the conflicting styles exists -- unlikely, considering the mutually annihilating contradictions -- Michôd doesn't find it, and Animal Kingdom slogs along for two hours unable to find a clear direction.
It opens strikingly enough, as a zoned-out teenager, Joshua or "J" (James Frecheville) sits watching TV next to a passed-out woman. Only when paramedics arrive do we realize that she has overdosed on heroin, and subsequent detail reveals the woman was the lad's mother. It is a perfectly paced procession, culminating in the dead-eyed teen's transferal to the family his mother tried to protect him from for years. That a heroin addict would find her relatives too horrible for her child suggests something about what kind of people they are, but what choice does J have?
In retrospect, I can see the immediate downturn in the film from this measured opening in its credits sequence, filled with somber, dull sweeps over an engraved plate and still from bank surveillance footage as robbers hold them up. The Codys are a family of robbers and dealers, but Michôd never actually shows that side of the action. It's a perfectly valid artistic decision, of course, but when I reflected on the film, I found it amusing that the director teased the audience with a heist movie even as he honestly conveyed what the film would give the audience: organized crime filmed tediously.
As J gets used to living with his grandmother, he introduces us to the family (via a voiceover narration that is subsequently dropped from the film, which would be cause for snarky complaint were it not such a relief not to hear Frecheville's droning voice overlapping the soundtrack). The oldest son, Andrew a.k.a. Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), stays out of the picture at the beginning, busy planning his various crimes and hiding out from the police. At the Cody home are the middle child, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), a unstable man who is willing to spend hours tailing a driver who flips him off just to terrify him; Darren (Luke Ford), the youngest son with only a few years on J; and Barry, a family friend who assists Pope in robberies and seems a fourth son at times. And presiding over them all is Janine (Jacki Weaver), a kindly matriarch whose loving attitude toward her children borders on incestuous. She does not say much for most of the film, but Weaver projects a cold authority behind her warmth. Where the matriarch in crime films is always aware of the actions of the men in her life but is ultimately removed from the action, she all but coordinates her children without outwardly doing so.
The first half hour moves swiftly, but apart from the initial introductions, Animal Kingdom makes no headway with its characters. Frecheville has clearly been instructed to play J as an emotionally stunted, blank teenager, but he makes for a poor cipher, and the story bounces off him like radar waves on a stealth bomber. We know to be horrified by his living conditions because the things that happen around him are despicable, but Frecheville is trapped by the role and cannot react to anything.
Every time this film starts to turn around and become something engaging -- particularly when police corruption factors into the hunt for the Cody family -- it stops just as quickly as it started. The cops close in at the half-hour mark and show a disturbing willingness to circumvent the right to a fair trial (to say the least), but the briefest of reprisals appears to back them off for another hour of screen time. Michôd seems to be trying to avoid falling into the unintentional romanticizing and cliché of the crime film, maintaining focus solely on the family and not their exploits or, unless one of the Codys is present, the police procedural work and corruption in the justice system. But no one fills the gaps left by these omissions, and I found myself wishing for a cliché just so I'd have something to hold onto. The mere absence of the usual does not automatically equate to insight, and for most of the film I felt as if I were looking at the molted shells of creatures who'd grown and moved on to some other film.
In fairness, the performances are uniformly excellent. Stapleton is a live wire, yet he may be the least unsettling person in the Cody household. Both Ford and Mendelsohn are quieter and more reserved on-screen, but they hide an intensity that could obliterate Darren, the middle child who has to act out to get noticed against the elder and the youngest sons. Mendelsohn, with his weak chin and unassuming physique, may not look like a dealer and a robber, but one shot of his eyes tells you all you need to know about the killer inside. Even Frecheville, stunted as he is in the restrictive part of J, holds his own with the other actors; later in the film, he manages to hold his own against Guy Pearce, who plays a detective who wants to save J from his life but also exploit him to bring down the family.
Pearce's involvement and the tug-of-war between his detective and J, who would just like to go back to the surrogate family he makes with his girlfriend, livens the film. With J poised to sell out his family to be rid of them, Michôd finally unleashes Weaver in all her power, and the results are transcendent. Already the focal point of attention with her subdued presence, Weaver's Janine morphs into a grandmotherly version of Lady Macbeth as police pressure constricts her sons. Her ability to mix open scheming, matronly charm and a veneer of false helplessness makes her the most terrifying character in the film, and her grim, spectral smile is beastly, as if a lioness baring her teeth when an outside force threatens her cubs.
But the turn comes too late, and Animal Kingdom switches into second gear long after it should have been in fifth. Too many elements never come together, from its cold, detached direction to the equally pedestrian electronic score that serves primarily to demonstrate to the skeptics how great and varied and textured other like scores have been recently (compare the nuance and perfectly timed fluctuations of, say, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' Social Network score to the unimaginative hum of Anthony Partos'). Some scenes verge on the embarrassing, as the lazily ironic use of Air Supply's "I'm All Out of Love" following a tragedy or a sort-of gangster version of the "You know how I know you're gay?" segment of Knocked Up that haphazardly occurs right after the audience gets introduced to Pope so we lack the investment in the character to get any laughs out of him. I've heard some say that the film is one of the most honest crime movies in years, but I found it too sterile, more realistic in aesthetic than a movie like GoodFellas but not nearly as real. Animal Kingdom fancies itself a character study, but it never studies its characters, and the individual elements of the film, some of which are exemplary, never coalesce, leaving an awkward, plodding mess.