In all likelihood you haven’t seen this movie and probably won’t unless I succeed in really getting my point across. That is why I shall try assiduously, because Animal Kingdom is a movie that ought to be seen for a plethora of reasons. Absolutely devoid of prejudice, it is staunch in its resolution not to judge. The characters have well-reasoned motivations for everything they do. The emotional turbulence rarely precipitates into mushy, mawkish blobs on the screen. It culminates beautifully, after reaching its epoch at the precise moment. Despite being a drama about the clandestine conduct of an Australian criminal family, it doesn’t work as much on the crime as on the members of the family and their attachments with one another. That is perhaps the most ingenuous of all the things it does – Animal Kingdom remembers what Vito Corleone said first – ‘a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.’ It is the family that matters; the family must always come before anything else.
Animal Kingdom looks at a crime syndicate through the eyes of seventeen year-old Joshua ‘J’ Cody (James Frecheville), but that crime syndicate happens to be his family, so that doesn’t bode too well. The movie begins with the death of J’s mother, after which J dyslexically calls his grandmother, Janine Cody (Jacki Weaver) and asks her if it would be alright for him to freeload at her place. After receiving a double-thumbs up from the kind, old lady, he meets his uncles, all criminals but most as brave as chickens in a storm. He watches their lives sullenly, almost like God looking down upon his minions, never reacting or saying something that might invite a spanking. His countenance is impassive. His behavior is non-intrusive into the on-goings of the family.
It is through J’s reticent and seemingly apathetic nature that the audience gets a chance to form a self-justified opinion of the acts of the members of the family. The narrative technique that director-writer David Michod adopts while telling us this story leaves space for the viewers themselves to form judgments. You can crucify them for their sins; you can exonerate of all blame – what is most important is that the choice remains yours. J looks at his family through a distant lens – he is one of them, but at the same time isn’t one of them. This is unique because most crime-related movies embalm their opinion upon the viewers and give them a prejudged package. This is remarkable because it is painstakingly arduous to stand-aside and watch a macabre festival without displaying any emotion about it. Animal Kingdom enables us to think for ourselves, without ever providing absolutist standards for right and wrong.
Since the movie is not as much about the story as it is about the people who make that story, Animal Kingdom’s ability to recognize this ensures that the people are well-founded and have solid motivations behind their actions. Of course, J’s character doesn’t talk or do much, which is actually good thing because he behaves like a gateway behind the curtains. Whether he voluntarily chooses to cast a blind-eye or whether he is a sized-down version of the Raymond Babbitt from Rain Man is debatable. A plausible reason for this idiosyncratic behavior could be a self-induced detachment from emotion because he has been hurt in the past – a hypothesis that is supported by the fact that even after the death of his mother, he talks to his grandmother in a chillingly calm manner, as if he and his mother never really shared any love or affection. Thus there is a reason, a reason that is derived from personal experience that makes J behave in the way he does. While people have called berated J for being so borderline autistic, it is possibly because they fail to realize what plays through J’s head as he observes the misdoings of his family.
Everything that the allied characters do too have a deep-seated and conceivable rationale, which makes watching the movie a wholesome experience because it answers a lot of the ‘whys’ that you might have. In Janine Cody, Animal Kingdom creates one of the scariest mothers ever. While she might not want to bury meat-hatchets into peoples’ tender skins or stalk her daughter’s boyfriend, what makes her so utterly frightening is her desire to ensure the best for the family. The ultimate survivalist, Janine has her priority list engraved in stone. Her sons always come first and she won’t stop short of anything to see that their interests are fulfilled. Janine takes the proverbial ‘mother is your best friend’ to the red-marked high-end of the spectrum. Everything she does is in accordance with the family’s requirements. Often, she seems callous and clinical in the way she deals with things, but in a world where only the fittest survive, I’m sure someone could successfully lawyer her position.
While dramas can often be heavily yawn-inducing, Animal Kingdom, through its astuteness in matters of the script, pacing and acting (with her unwavering smile and the command she displays, Weaver takes Janine to another level) ensures that the metric tension that such films need hangs where it needs to. It shows the conundrum that J is confronted with when he has to choose between his family and the right thing and the confusion that results from the same. J runs constantly, from one place to another, never really finding the station that his life was meant to have; but in the jungle, moving is probably the only way to survive.