I love crime dramas and I love thrillers so it is not surprising that I am a fan of Animal Kingdom, the winner of this year’s dramatic jury prize for world cinema at the Sundance Film Festival. Director David Michod combines quiet suspense with dark family drama to produce an intensely satisfying noir about life in the Australian crime underworld through the eyes of a 17-year-old boy.
From the very beginning, it is clear this will be a drama as the audience watches Joshua, also known as J, sit quietly next to his mother who appears to be passed out. We soon realize that she is dead from an overdose of heroin and Joshua is now alone. Before you begin to curse what a horrible mother this woman was, she did do one think for Joshua that was good – – she kept him away from “the” family because she was scared for him. And, as we soon find out, Joshua’s mother had good reason to be scared of her family and to keep her son away from them.
Unfortunately, Joshua (played by James Frecheville) has no other choice but to turn to these strangers after his mother’s death. Enter the bubbly, loving and affectionate grandmother (Jackie Weaver) who welcomes Joshua into her home, which also includes her three sons (one is in hiding to avoid the cops) and their close friend. Through Joshua, the audience is introduced to the Australian crime world and the reasons why his mother kept him from the family. If you are expecting over-the-top special effects, shoot-outs and gratuitous violence, you will be disappointed. Animal Kingdom is an intense thriller that gives its chills from the expertly directed tension of the characters as they unravel before Joshua’s eyes. Once Joshua realizes his family’s true business, he searches for a means of escape from this hellish situation. The violence is sharp, quick and chilling when it does happen giving the audience a sense of the real danger facing Joshua. Even Smurf, as the doting grandmother is affectionately called, turns into a frightening version of the family matriarch who is cold and sinister in her rule over her boys. Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), the brother returning from hiding, is evil, menacing and utterly disturbing as the alpha male in this clan.
Joshua and his girlfriend are soon in the middle of deadly encounters between criminals, corrupt police and the few police that are not corrupt. As the violence, and tension, escalates Joshua finally breaks down in a moment filled with drama and pure emotion. The one saving grace for Joshua may be police officer Leckie, played beautifully by Guy Pearce. Leckie may be able to save Joshua but he must battle criminals and corrupt cops and maybe even Joshua himself.