Animal Kingdom

You would think that a movie about a family of armed bank robbers would have a fairly energetic (and probably climatic) heist scene somewhere in the film. Animal Kingdom doesn’t even have a single one. The closest the viewer gets to the “action” is during the opening credits, when stills from security cameras show masked men pointing pistols into the faces of bank tellers. If you go in expecting something similar to The Town you will be floored by how different, and effective, Animal Kingdom is in the well-worn crime genre.

The consequences of a bank heist are always glossed over. The heist picture generally focuses on the “one last job” plot point where a team of highly experienced criminals come together to commit the big crime that will give them enough money to retire the ski masks for good. Of course, during the “one last job” complications ensue. Either one member of the team double-crosses the others and makes off with the loot or everyone on the team is killed (sometimes one of them makes it out and live happily ever after in Hawaii, but that’s when the picture ends). Animal Kingdom approaches this worn storyline from a different tract: the crooks are successful. Except now they live in constant fear that the armed robbery squad will put them away in prison.

The story is told from the perspective of Josh Cody (James Frecheville), the seventeen-year old grandson of Grandma “Smurf” (Jacki Weaver), the matriarch of the family. After his mother dies of a heroin overdose, he calls his grandmother, not sure about what he is supposed to do. He is taken in by the estranged side of his family and discovers that they are all involved, some way or another, in criminal activities. His uncle Craig sells drugs and has a narcotics officer on his payroll. His uncle Andrew, known as “Pope”, is in hiding after an armed robbery. His youngest uncle Darren, who is only two years older than Josh, helps his brothers out where needed. Rounding out the crew is a family friend, Baz, who has committed armed robberies alongside Pope.

Josh arrives at exactly the inopportune moment: the decline of the Cody criminal family. In an escalating battle with the police, his uncles keep losing ground. They have become weak and hunted. They are desperate, fearful, and paranoid. And they keep falling down the rungs of crime’s animal kingdom.

In one particularly important sequence, Detective Leckie (Guy Pearce) sits Josh down and makes an analogy. There are some animals that are strong, and others that are weak. However, sometimes,  for whatever reason, a herd of strong animals will protect a weak one, giving him a feeling of power and protection. Leckie looks at Josh point-blank and tells him that he is one of the weak animals, and that his uncles, who used to be strong, can’t protect him anymore. Josh will have to make a choice; either he remains loyal to a family he barely knows (and they are becoming increasingly anxious that the police want to talk to him all the time) or he betrays them and becomes part of a new, stronger pack.

Josh’s choice reminded me a lot of the protagonist in the recent French film Un Prophete. In that film, an 18 year-old man is sent to prison for six years and during that time he changes from a naive and weak criminal into a ruthless and cold kingpin. While Josh’s journey isn’t quite the same, his echoes a similar coming-of-age theme against a backdrop of crime. He has to make some pretty difficult decisions, and in the end what he chooses to do defines who he will (or has) become.

Animal Kingdom is an effective, powerful, and unique crime masterpiece that deserves its entry among the pantheon of great crime films. It also has a killer soundtrack and score, one that I would argue surpasses that of the Oscar-winning music for The Social Network.

Had Animal Kingdom been nominated for Best Picture, I would’ve been hard-pressed to choose The Social Network over it. In either case, it’s easily one of the best movies of 2010. Check it out.

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