A mother's love in Animal Kingdom
Bless the beasts and the children
There's no sweep here, no operatic grandeur or long-rooted history, no sense of an era passing or an age dawning. Instead Michod gives us suburbs filled with tract homes, backyards defined by either chicken wire or rickety fencing, the odd farmhouse at the edge of a vast dry grassland.
It has a stunning opening: a young man sitting on a couch with his mother, watching TV. TV, mother, son, couch: totally innocuous until the paramedics arrive and--still within the same shot and all at once--we learn a story of abuse, neglect, traumatic loss, and monstrous lack of affect.
The rest of the film doesn't quite live up to that opening, but does show us with equally little fuss a family on the verge of imploding. Joshua "J" Cody, the young man (James Frenchville), is adopted by his estranged grandmother Janine "Smurf" Cody (Jacki Weaver); he's our means of introduction into the world of the Codys, a notorious Melbourne crime family that specializes in armed robbery (though certain members are not above maintaining a sideline in drugs now and then).
Josh meets Uncle Baz (Joel Edgerton), who passes for the Voice of Reason in this family (Baz wants to quit the business and go into stock-brokering); he meets Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) who, at the other extreme, is the object of a manhunt by renegade cops. When the cops kill Baz (incidental or intentional we aren't sure), the death unleashes Pope to wreak bloody vengeance, with grave consequences.
It's not an all-out war, not even a small one; there is violence, but not baroque, or excessively glamorous (oftentimes the killings are suggested off-camera, through sound). If there's anything at all large-scale in any of this, it's the all-pervading sense of foreboding that hangs over the town (it's hard to call it a city--like Los Angeles, there's too much land in Melbourne stretching out in all directions, a sprawling suburb in search of a city). Like Los Angeles, Melbourne seems supremely qualified to call itself a prime location for sunshine noir--that subset of crime noir set in an arid landscape of desert brush and sand, often in brilliant daylight. But not a cheerful daylight; instead it's relentless, implacable, unforgiving, like God's judgment beating down on us, refusing to turn His glare away.
Pope is a frightening presence. When he first shows himself it's at night, to avoid the officers; later he feels safe enough to go out with Baz and narrowly escapes being offed himself. J watches silently as Pope plans a retaliation killing in response to Baz's death; he watches silently as Pope threatens him (Pope is afraid J might betray them to the cops). With Baz gone, Pope has without a word assumed the patriarch role, or rather a parody of one, as cruel disciplinarian and child-consuming monster.
Yet for all that, Pope isn't the dark heart of the film, it's Janine. Motherly yet sensuous, affectionate yet ruthless, she's the enabler and supporter who makes the Cody family's criminal activities possible. It's as if she were two people--the first able to warmly welcome J into her home, the second able to threaten lawyers and police officers into giving her what she wants. She's actually creepier when she's being loving--you wonder if she's at all sincere, same time you wonder if she's the one who ordered you killed.
Michod's film brings to mind Ben Affleck's The Town--both are family crime dramas, both have a strong sense of place (one set in Boston, the other Melbourne). Michod's is perhaps grimmer and more unrelenting, more perversely elliptical (it keeps its camera gazing long after one expects it to turn away, keeps the camera at arm's length when one expects a closer look). Can the picture bear comparison with some classic titles--The Godfather films, for one? Yes, and to its credit, it doesn't even flinch.