The Codys, a dysfunctional family of criminals from the hardscrabble streets of Melbourne, Australia, go through a white-knuckle self-immolation in "Animal Kingdom," a film featuring a tour de force performance from Jacki Weaver as the most protective mother this side of "Alien."
The action begins with a young man, James (James Frecheville), calmly calling the police to inform them that his mother has died of a heroine overdose. He's is unnervingly unmoved by the turn of events. With nowhere else to go, he then calls his estranged grandmother, Janine "Smurf‟ Cody (Weaver), matriarch of a band of brothers/thieves. At the same time that James is drawn into the families web, a chain of events is set off that ultimately pits him against the only family he has left.
Writer-director David Michod's film takes a hard look at social Darwinism and the will to survive from a number of angles, a topic he makes plain with both the title of his film and the opening shot, which shows a bas-relief jungle scene with a roaring lion front-and-center. But Michod is smart enough to acknowledge that it's not just the strong that survive, as his characters' fates are also moved by luck and guile.
Michod expertly approaches his topic with a subtlety that only falters once, when James gets a talking to from Det. Nathan Leckie, played by Guy Pearce, whose performance manages to overcome the hilarious Ned Flanders push-broom he sports for the film. The speech -- a soliloquy, actually -- is clumsy and pedantic and obvious.
The greatest, most effective trick of the narrative is the sleight of hand Michood employs in presenting Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), the eldest of the Cody boys, as an abject sociopath. Your contempt is so focused on this miscreant, you almost fail to realize that it is Smurf who is the true monster, willing to do anything to ensure the safety of her brood. There's a moment toward the end of the film when Smurf explains her logic in deciding her course of action -- it is hard, cold, deadly and almost impossible to dispute.
As a member of the Blue-Tongue collective, a group of filmmakers that includes Joel and Nash Edgerton ("The Square" and the short "Spider" both of which we loved) and Spencer Susser ("Hesher," which was flawed but still good), Michod has been honing his skills as a writer. Here, in his first feature-film as a director, he shows a talent for working with actors and behind the camera as well. As good as Weaver and the rest of the cast are, "Animal Kingdom" is Michod's movie, and it's an audacious debut.