In “Animal Kingdom,” 17-year-old Josh Cody is watching a TV game show when he calls his grandmother with this emotionless report: “Mom’s gone and OD’d and she’s died.” Mom’s body is on the couch next to him. What may sound like an almost sociopathic lack of empathy is actually Josh’s defense system, protecting him from the harsh realities of his life. His late mother, drug-addled though she was, tried to shield him from dangerous influences — particularly the low-life criminals who comprise her own family. Now that she’s gone, Josh has no other relatives to reach out to. He was better off with the heroin-addicted mom.
Written and directed by David Michod in his feature debut, “Animal Kingdom” is a top-notch Australian thriller about a fascinating, unsettling clan of Melbourne lowlifes. The question for Josh, sensitively played by newcomer James Frecheville, is whether he can resist losing his moral compass the way all of his relatives have, or whether he’ll continue to be part of the cycle. The question for us is how, after almost a century of movies about criminals, it’s still possible to find an approach that feels fresh and exciting, as Michod does.
The Cody family is headed by Josh’s grandma, called Smurf (Jacki Weaver), a saucy old gal who manages to be matronly and randy at the same time. She’ll fix you a cup of tea one minute, share a too-long kiss on the mouth with her son the next. Her three sons, Josh’s uncles, are involved in whatever criminal activities they can get their hands on, primarily drug-related. Darren (Luke Ford) is just a couple years older than Josh and not very useful yet. The tattoo-covered Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is constantly wired on cocaine. Andrew (Ben Mendelsohn), nicknamed Pope, is in hiding. The boys’ friend, Baz Brown (Joel Edgerton), runs their operation (to the extent that it’s organized enough to be called an “operation”), which is currently being pursued with an extralegal, by-all-means-necessary vigor by local police.
Living with his grandmother and uncles, it’s impossible for Josh not to become part of their seedy dealings. At the very least, he knows what’s going on, which makes him a liability as a potential witness. He tries to continue a normal teenager’s life, including getting a girlfriend (Laura Wheelwright), but the call of the wild may be irresistible.
As the title suggests, “Animal Kingdom” is about survival of the fittest, the law of the jungle. It’s also about the thing that governs animal instincts: fear. Serving as narrator, Josh tells us, “Mum kept me away from her family because she was scared…. They were all scared, even if they didn’t show it.” Michod depicts the criminal life as an unglamorous, exhausting cycle of running, struggling, and panic — the sort of thing that ought to be easy for a clearheaded person to avoid, yet that somehow lures people in.
James Frecheville is a find as the brooding young Josh, and he’s supported by the steady, hardworking cast of Aussie actors. Chief among them, in a grimly funny turn, is Jacki Weaver as Granny Cody. Weaver has worked regularly in Australian theater, film, and television for 40 years, but “Animal Kingdom” marks the first time she’s aroused much international attention. It’s because of this kind of mesmerizing and chilling performance that movie awards have a Best Supporting Actress category.
A- (1 hr., 53 min.; )