Australian crime drama is mired in cliches and inaction.
Glum portent is the order of the day in writer-director David Michod’s plodding Sundance prize winner, an over-glossy family crime saga that takes the drama out of melodrama. The kind of debut designed to call attention to itself, Animal Kingdom is artful to a fault, striving so hard for Shakespearean import that it saps whatever life and energy there was to be found in this familiar, low-stakes tale of small-time Melbourne hoods at the end of the line.
James Frecheville stars as Joshua Cody, an inexpressive 17-year-old we first see staring blankly at the television, waiting for the EMTs after his mother’s fatal heroin overdose. I think we’re supposed to read Frecheville’s indifference to Mum’s corpse as numbed shock, but as the lad wears the same banal facial expression for the nearly two-hour running time, he might just be a lousy actor.
Josh is sent off to live with his estranged grandma (Jacki Weaver), a malevolently cuddly old bat who dotes on her hoodlum sons and has a weird habit of kissing them on the lips. Uncle Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) is an armed robber on the lam from Melbourne’s crooked cops. They don’t have enough evidence against Pope to mount a real case, so they’ll probably just shoot him instead. Uncle Craig (Sullivan Stapelton) is having an easier time of things in the drug trade, though it looks like he’s starting to grow a little too fond of the product. Hapless Uncle Darren (Luke Ford) is the blond baby of the crew, in over his head with these hardened thugs. He’s got the same vapid deer-in-the-headlights stare as his nephew Josh, suggesting that dull-wittedness runs in the family.
We’re introduced to all these characters with one giant, ungainly chunk of voiceover narration, a device the movie quickly drops as soon as expository duties have been fulfilled. (Too bad, as it might have helped give Josh some inner life behind Frecheville’s dead eyes.) You’ll spend the first half-hour trying to untangle who’s who, as so many characters have weak personalities and mangy facial hair. Eventually, Uncle Pope’s partner (Joel Edgerton) delivers a long monologue about how he’s retiring from his life of crime and investing in the stock market—the kind of statement that starts an invisible stopwatch counting down the minutes until his demise.
The Cody family doesn’t seek revenge in the wisest of ways, blowing away two innocent patrol officers and drawing the wrath of the spectacularly corrupt Melbourne police department. Gobsmacked young Josh spends the rest of the movie increasingly horrified by his family’s actions, yet still hesitant to rat them out to Australia’s only good cop (Guy Pearce, who we can tell is a decent guy because he has a goofy moustache and a disabled son.)
This is where Animal Kingdom grinds to a halt, wallowing for more than an hour in the kid’s sad-sack indecision. Scenes repeat ad infinitum, alternating between Uncle Pope doing terrible deeds and Pearce pontificating at great length about the title’s hefty metaphorical implications. Slowly grinding on to the predictable conclusion, writer-director Michod leaves no cliché unturned. There’s not a moment or a character in Animal Kingdom you haven’t already seen in countless better crime dramas, and the writing is too colorless to revive limp genre tropes.
In lieu of personality, Michod ramps up the funereal atmosphere. It’s easy to tell when something significant is about to happen, because the audio drops out of the soundtrack and suddenly everybody’s moving in slow motion. Ostentatious dolly shots take minutes to circle around a room for no good reason as characters stare vacantly into the middle distance. Michod’s ornate, heightened shooting style is completely unearned by the material—all the pomp and circumstance in the world can’t disguise the fact that these are deeply uninteresting people in terribly familiar situations. ■