Animal Kingdom | Criminal Family Life in Australia

Sullivan Stapleton as Craig Cody and Jacki Weaver as Janine Cody are members of the thieving family portrayed in Animal Kingdom.

The opening scene of Sundance World Dramatic Competition winner Animal Kingdom is a sobering entrée into the seedy underworld of Melbourne, Australia. Seventeen-year-old Joshua “J” Cody (James Frecheville) watches a TV game show beside his sleeping mom. When paramedics arrive, we learn that J’s mom is not napping, she has overdosed on heroin. J continues watching TV while the EMTs try to save his mother. Apparently, this is just another mind-numbing day for the son of an addict. Or maybe not.

Cut to J phoning his estranged grandma Janine; he asks her for help with his mom’s funeral. J is suddenly alone. So when Janine offers to take him in, we feel relieved, until we meet her. Janine “Smurf” Cody, played by Oscar-nominated Jacki Weaver, is a cold and calculating witch lurking beneath a veneer of twisted sweetness. Smurf believes she has the ability to make the world look a shiny place, and her affection for each of her sons makes the little hairs on your arm stand up. Every time she caresses their faces and kisses them on the lips, I want to pause the DVD and go take a shower, and then Google Oedipus Rex.

When J moves in with the Cody clan, we find ourselves among a band of career thieves and armed robbers. The handful of memorable characters include the three Cody sons, the creepiest being “Pope” (Ben Mendelsohn), who made me want to throw him in the shower. The family lawyer is another lowly piece of humanity. And the refreshing taste of normalcy comes from J’s girlfriend Nicky, who is kind and caring but not without her own indulgences.

And then there are the cops, whose ethics are no higher than the criminals’, with the exception of Detective Leckie, played by the firm but gentle Guy Pearce. He tries to win J’s trust to gain inside information about the Codys, but he also wants to shelter J from his dangerous family.

In Animal Kingdom, writer and director David Michod presents a kind of sociological study that is less focused on the actual crimes and more interested in this subterranean culture where people behave like animals but with less conscience. Front and center and poised for a train wreck is J, the vulnerable teenager in the custody of ruthless criminals at an age when he isn’t ready to discriminate. We wait and watch to see what J is made of, and whether he will find his own way before it’s too late or become part of the animal kingdom. This frightening story, which is not for everyone, makes us realize how little control we have over the circumstances that shape us. And it might make you grateful.    B+

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