Orphan joins crime clan: Not a pretty picture
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, August 27, 2010
Anyone who claims to be part of a dysfunctional family might want to take a gander at the Codys, a clan of car thieves, bank robbers, druggies, dealers and murderers, and the subjects of the dark Australian drama "Animal Kingdom."
The film, which won writer-director David Michôd the world cinema jury prize at Sundance this year, wastes no time shocking its audience with the breezy way it handles bleak material. A woman, overdosed on heroin, sits crumpled on a couch as paramedics try to revive her. But her teenage son can't seem to peel himself away from the television. His eyes are glazed, unaffected. When she dies, leaving J (James Frecheville) orphaned, this baby bird falls out of the nest and into a lion's den, moving in with his estranged grandmother and meeting the rest of his fearsome relatives: four uncles, who demonstrate varying degrees of depravity. When J arrives, he finds the group in crisis, as vigilante police officers have begun murdering suspected criminals. The dirty cops have the Codys in their sights.
It may sound like a cynical ride, but it's also a highly watchable one, thanks to immaculate pacing. The story meticulously unfurls like an apple carefully peeled in one long ribbon to reveal its rotten core.
The most troubling aspect of the story -- and its most compelling -- is the emphasis on banal, everyday life. In one scene, Uncle Baz (Joel Edgerton) teaches his nephew the proper technique for washing his hands after a bathroom visit, while in another, a dirty cop talks about taking his kids to soccer practice. This is business as usual.
The characters are similarly incongruous. Grandma "Smurf," impressively played by Jacki Weaver, is terrifying. With a blond coif and a Stepford smile, she uses the kind of soothing voice one might reserve for an injured puppy even when she's blackmailing a police officer or ordering a hit on someone.
Her son, nicknamed Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), is the unpredictable king of this jungle. He resembles a slow-talking Norman Bates, with crazy in his eyes and a penchant for Hawaiian shirts. When a herd of police officers rushes into the house to arrest him, he offers his visitors a blank stare of boredom. Just another day at the office for him.
The otherwise careful tempo slows down a bit toward the end, as police officer Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce, looking coplike and mustachioed) tries to save J while incarcerating the Codys. This may give the audience enough time to see the ending before it arrives. Even so, the saga remains a spellbinding narrative that gives new meaning to the phrase family drama.
Contains violence, strong language and drug use.