In the jungle only the strongest survives. Or the one who has the capacity of killing and not being killed. The Darwinian postulate is the see-through leitmotif of Animal Kingdom, the story of a young man coming to terms with his brutally dysfunctional family and its problems with the law.
The film, written and directed by David Michod, starts with a shot of Joshua ‘J’ Cody ,- soberly interpreted by James Frenchville, – watching TV with his mother’s corpse. He is waiting for the paramedics expressionless, nearly as inanimate as she is.
That strangeness, confusion without catharsis, and not intentional coldness will be the attitude he carries throughout the film, -only interrupted once, when we can see him breaking into tears.
It is that mood that J contaminates the film with: a constant building up of tension which never explodes in an authentic climax.
The -arguably abusive- camera work in slow motion and the dramatic score that silences the dialogues, also helps to highlight the post-traumatic chaos during several scenes. Neither visually spectacular, nor gritty and ultra realistic, Animal Kingdom’s aesthetics are in no-man’s land.
If we look for references Gus Van Sant’s cinematography may be there. There are also hints to Martin Scorsese with the use of montages in slow motion in the aftermath of the tragedy.
The story can even be read as an unglamorous and down to earth version of Goodfellas.
But the way Melbourne is portrayed, with its sun, trigger-happy cops and undercurrent business, clearly refers to Los Angeles neo-noirs LA Confidential and Heat. After J’s mother’s death he moves in with his grandmother and uncles: a real lions’ den.
A family of delinquents whose males look like a bunch of Beach Boys outcasts, under the matriarchy of Janine, -the wicked woman who disturbingly kisses everybody on the lips, played by Jacky Weaver .
“I’ve been around for a while,” she explains about her ways of getting confidential information from the police. And we cannot doubt it.
She is the one who – unlike Abraham in the bible – does not hesitate in killing her son if the reason is good enough. When one of J’s uncles is shot dead by the police, a spiral of violence becomes inevitable.
The oldest of the brothers releases his paranoid side only to compete in nastiness with his mother’s. J is there, but he does not participate in the revenge attacks.
The possibility of not becoming like them is given by Leckie, the good and wise policeman portrayed by a maturing Guy Pearce, the other pillar in the triumvirate of actors which supports the film.
We will not know until the end if J decides to escape the criminal determinism that rules his family or if he wants to be with them. But being with them means he has to survive: and that means become a lion and not a cub any more.