A teenager finds himself thrown into the criminal lifestyle when his mother overdoses and leaves him orphaned. Joshua Cody (James Frecheville) hasn't seen his family for a long time and the more information that comes out about the dealings of the Cody clan, perhaps this was for the best.
His grandmother, affectionately called Smurf (Jacki Weaver), is the matriarch of perhaps the most violent armed-robbery crew in Australia and possesses in her arsenal the most sadistically devoted son in cinema history (Ben Mendelsohn). Mendelsohn's portrayal of Pope makes Norman Bates seem relatively tame in comparison.
After Joshua unwittingly participates in the murder of two police officers, he must make a decision and Sergeant Leckie (Guy Pearce) offers two choices. Testify against his uncles and run the risk of having to hide the rest of his life, or risk incarceration and become King of his Pride.
Director David Michôd has a lot to work to do with a virtual unknown as his lead. Whether it was an intentional choice or not, James Frecheville appears to be in way over his head and it showed. When comparing Frecheville with Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom suffers from a lack of a compelling presence in its protagonist. Edgerton must have used up most of the charisma with his presence, but the Aussie's screentime was virtually nil.
Surprisingly, the Cody most worth watching was Smurf. Jacki Weaver was absolutely devastating as a grandmother who was at times heart-warming and horrifying. There is absolutely nothing she wouldn't consider to secure her lifestyle. Nothing.
Even when the film lags in a few spots, Animal Kingdom redeems itself immediately when the film hits almost unbearably tense spots with the viewer digging their nails into the couch. One such highlight of the film occurs when Joshua and his girlfriend have fallen asleep on a couch and Air Supply’s “I’m All Out of Love” is playing in the background. A moment that could be considered sweet is subverted to a disturbing effect.
As the camera pans slowly through the room Pope is revealed. He’s been watching them sleep for a while now. As the music increases the camera focuses in on the demented glare of the malevolent uncle. It’s a truly terrifying scene and if you didn't tear a hole through your couch’s arm then you must not have a pulse.
Few crime films take such a unique stance in only covering the domestic drama behind a clan of thieves, but Animal Kingdom does it well. This family will eat you alive.