Thursday, September 9, 2010

Review: "Animal Kingdom"

The boys of the Cody clan are facing the end of days. Their zenith as Australia's most notorious bank robbers has passed, with the corrupt Melbourne police no longer willing to look the other way in exchange for some fat envelopes. "Pull your heads in," advises one still-friendly detective.

The Codys do not pull their heads in, because that is not who the Codys are. Here is who the Codys are: When volatile Craig Cody (Sullivan Stapleton) gets flipped off by some punks at a stoplight, he pursues them into an alley, hands a pistol to his teen nephew Joshua (James Frecheville) and orders him, "Let 'em know who's king."

"Animal Kingdom," the tense, gritty crime thriller from Oz is the story of Joshua, and what it's like to be suddenly thrust into a family that nourishes itself on fear instead of love. He's afraid of the cops, but even more terrified of his crazy uncles -- especially the oldest and craziest, Andrew "Pope" Cody (a chilling, unhinged Ben Mendelsohn).

Writer/director David Michôd constructs a slippery narrative that consistently fools the audience about where the movie is heading. The result is part "Donnie Brasco," part "Godfather" and more than a little bit Ma Barker.

For those who don't remember Ma Barker, she was the mother of a similar brood of killers during the 1930s, until she and her son Fred were gunned down in what is still the longest shoot-out in FBI history. The legend has long persisted that Ma secretly ran the gang, since lawmen would not suspect a grandmotherly figure of orchestrating kidnappings and murders.

Her myth has been fodder for several movies over the years, most famously "White Heat" starring James Cagney.

(Interesting aside: For several years I lived next door to the house where the Barker shoot-out took place. The same family that rented it to the Barkers still owns it. They fixed most of the bullet holes but left a few for nostalgia. An annual recreation of the gunfight is the height of the social season.)

The "Ma" character here is played by Jacki Weaver, as a smiling, pleasant-looking woman of late middle years who seems to be the calm at the center of the storm of criminal activity all around here. Her sons show up on her doorstep, often drugged up or on the lam, and she offers a cheerful grin and something to eat.

Ma Cody welcomes the arrival of her grandson Joshua, or "J", after his mother overdoses on heroin. He becomes a witness and unwilling participant in their cycle of crime. Over time, it becomes clear to J -- and the audience -- that his grandmother is much more than an enabler in denial.

Besides Pope and Craig, there's Darren (Luke Ford), who's only a little older than J and still has some of his innocence, too. Barry "Boz" Brown (Joel Edgerton) is an extended member of the family who recognizes that the criminal life pays only short-term dividends. He urges Pope to put his money in the stock market, and by Pope's bewildered reaction we can see it's like telling a wolf not to hunt.

Guy Pearce has a terrific role as Nathan Leckie, the detective tasked with bringing the Cody boys in. Leckie quickly zeroes in on J as the weak link, and pursues him with a relentless professionalism that borders on friendliness. He doesn't use threats, just logic and patience.

Leckie recognizes the corruption and abuse that exists within law enforcement, and works to nudge things in the right direction as much as his position will allow. Given the brutal way police are often depicted in "Animal Kingdom," his even-keeled pragmatism gives him an almost heroic aura.

The film is certainly worthwhile, though I found a few pieces missing. J remains too much of a blank slate throughout the movie, but by the end we're supposed to believe he has absorbed all the lessons that both cops and robbers had to teach him. It's never a good thing when your main character is the least interesting person on the screen.

3 stars after four


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