Australia was settled as a penal colony, so it makes perfect sense its crime movies are excellent. Earlier this year it gave us The Square, a darkly hilarious fable that saw theft and adultery spiral into arson and murder. Now The Square’s screenwriter, actor Joel Edgerton, returns in director David Michod’s Animal Kingdom, a story about a Melbourne crime family that makes the Corleones look like the Brady Bunch.
As teenager J Cody (James Frecheville) is blithely watching television one day, his mother dies of a heroin overdose. So J goes off to live with his grandma Smurf (the excellent Jacki Weaver) and his half-wit uncles Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford). Craig and Darren are small-time crooks working under the leadership of Baz (Edgerton), a surprisingly gentle and magnanimous character who makes sure everyone is happy and safe. But when Baz’s partner—and J’s uncle—Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) comes out of hiding, everything falls apart.
The Cody family is a fascinating tableau, with an undercurrent of violence undermining every gesture of affection. Grandma Smurf, in particular, is a devil of a character: a cute, diminutive, affectionate woman with a heart of steel. Edgerton, too, does excellent work in a smaller role—and I was genuinely taken aback by what happened to his character, so I’ll stop discussing it here—but the movie is carried by Frecheville, whose poker face at first suggests slowness, but eventually reveals a killer survival instinct to navigate the Codys’ crooked familial waters.
Guy Pearce also has a strong role as a detective trying to get J to squeal on his family. The teenager resists, obviously, and some of the latter plot workings are a little confusing, but Animal Kingdom ends up being a brutal, gripping crime story and a knockout of a family drama.