REVIEW: Character Flaws Can't Derail Stylish, Shocking Animal Kingdom

Movieline Score:

A woman well past a certain age, Smurf (Jacki Weaver), is constantly marking her grown children, like territory. Bleached and primped beyond the limits of dignity, she demands kisses from her sons, lingering and cooing over their lips; a thumb wet with saliva seems always at the ready, poised to erase a cheek smudge here, to smooth a strand of hair there.

Initially this maternal overdrive seems like a boon for J (James Frecheville), a 17-year-old Melbourne teenager taken in by Smurf -- who happens to be his estranged grandma -- after his mother enjoys her last hot-shot on the chesterfield. Smurf may at least provide a correction in a department that has clearly been lacking. The rest of Animal Kingdom, David Michôd's swing for the crime-saga fences (and feature debut), is a pointed dismantling of that first, comforting impression: This matriarch's instincts are chiefly primal, and her drive for self-preservation wears the subversive disguise of selfless, tender care.

Smurf Cody, we learn after a credits sequence composed of security footage of armed robberies set to a bathetic, insinuating score, presides over a crime ring at a crossroads: Her eldest son, Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), is laying low in some kind of safe house; Darren (Luke Ford), her youngest, is ambivalent but pliable; middle son Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) has reached a compromising tipping point with his coke abuse; and the family's partner, Baz (Joel Edgerton), wants to go straight and invest his holdings in the stock market.

The latter two men -- tall, lean, with close-but-no-cigar chiseled features -- appear to be the botched attempts God threw away before creating Guy Pearce, and oddly enough, the real thing eventually shows up too, as though summoned by the Australian cinema gods. A cop charged with guiding J out of his entanglement with the family's retaliation against a random, savage episode of police violence, he indeed functions as an improvement on the inadequate father figures both Craig and Baz turn out to be.

The tyranny of circumstance is the film's first and most persuasive theme: "Kids just are where they are and they do what they're doing," J says, in an opening bout of narration that trails off as his character disappears behind a veil of inscrutability. We are either the champions or victims of our circumstance, Michôd, who also wrote the script, suggests. He plunges J, an almost complete cipher (the teen is as long, blank, and quiet as a Q-Tip, right to the top of his bulbed head), into new and ostensibly seductive circumstances, then posits what happens next as inevitable.

The problem is that J must remain without any autonomy or moral sense -- any sense at all, really -- for the narrative's slow, suspenseful grind to amount to much more than an exercise in technique. His transformation, if you can call it that, is so subtle that you might miss it completely: J traverses the spectrum from corruption to ethical awakening to nihilistic disillusion without so much as a shadow passing over his face. What passes for shock and absorption in the first scenes, where he watches his uncles horsing around, perhaps yearning for inclusion however it must be earned, soon looks like simple-minded impassivity.

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