If you think of all the great American crime films centred around a family - actual or metaphorical - you will almost certainly be thinking of films surrounding charismatic and honourable men. Violent men, sure. Frightening men, certainly. But the characters of 'The Godfather', or 'Goodfellas' or of 'Miller's Crossing', not to mention any Cagney film, are ultimately anti-heroes operating corruptly but within a corrupt world.
At their most heroic (or satirical) they come to embody the entrepreneurial spirit and even the American Dream as in 'Scarface'. And, as devoutly religious men, they always have some sort of arbitrary moral code - a line they will not cross. Either they won't sell drugs or they won't whack a guy in Church or whatever. American gangsters socialise themselves into a world of rules and meaning: one where their murderous, destructive actions are re-defined and sanitised.
As an audience we are always compelled to empathise with a film's protagonists, even if they take the form of an exhausted and delusional Adolf Hitler in 'Downfall' or the racist and paranoid fantasist Travis Bickle in 'Taxi Driver'. In this same way the bank-robbing Cody family of Oscar nominated Australian crime drama 'Animal Kingdom' are still relatable as human characters, yet writer and director David Michôd refuses to glamorise them and is cynical about trite ideas of 'family loyalty'.
Operating under the gaze of 'Smurf', a vaguely incestuous, ever-smiling matriarch played by Jacki Weaver (whose performance earned her an Academy Award nomination), the Cody clan - with the exception of the sheepish Darren (Luke Ford) and the conflicted young 'J' (James Frecheville) - are shown to be ruthless and we see that they would sooner turn on each other than go to prison. 'Smurf' doesn't even shed a tear when she learns that her estranged daughter, J's mother, has died from a drug overdose.
It is this death which sees J move in with his grandmother and uncles and become caught up in the world of crime his mother tried to keep him away from. Only he has been taken in by a criminal organisation well past its prime and soon realises he might have been safer staying his own, as an increasingly gung-ho police force closes in, threatening to wipe out the family. Pressure on the Cody family only increases when, in a revenge attack for the murder of a criminal associate, three of the brothers - lead by the dead-eyed and psychopathic 'Pope' (Ben Mendelsohn) - murder two young policemen in a cowardly, seedy act under cover of darkness and devoid of all honour or glamour.
Soon J, who was not directly involved in the attack, is targeted as a key witness to this double murder by the well-meaning Detective Leckie played by Guy Pearce. The central drama revolves around whether J will lie to protect his family or whether he will be persuaded by Leckie into testifying against them in court. It's all about where J fits into the food chain in a Darwinian world. As Leckie tells him "you may think you're one of the strong creatures. But you're not: you're one of the weak ones." Like Tahar Rahim's Malik in the similarly gritty and uncompromising 'A Prophet', J must adapt to his environment fast if he is to survive.
'Animal Kingdom' plays out as a battle between two charismatic competing opposite forces, who also happen to be embodied by the film's two most compelling actors: Guy Pearce and Jacki Weaver. Neither of whom dominate in terms of screen-time. Weaver has been earning the plaudits for a performance which manages to convey menace under the surface whilst her character is all smiles and sweetness. Weaver doesn't simply make 'Smurf' so nice that it becomes unsettling in itself, which wouldn't work as we have to believe 'J' really buys into her persona, but instead she seems sincerely nice, loving and sympathetic with the stage actress somehow conveying an inner complexity somewhere behind her eyes.
Guy Pearce is by now a Hollywood veteran of sorts and so he has understandably been overlooked in favour of Weaver, a relative unknown, in terms of critical acclaim. Yet he is equally if not more impressive as Leckie, another impactful supporting role in a career which has recently come to be defined by impactful supporting roles, following 'The Road', 'The Hurt Locker' and 'The King's Speech'. He is understated and commands your attention the way only a really gifted, natural-born screen actor can. In fact his presence raises the class of the whole film and makes his few scenes among the most memorable.
The whole thing has a moody and oppressive atmosphere which builds into something quite tense and 'Animal Kingdom' is a handsomely made film. Although one pivotal tragic scene involving J's girlfriend (Laura Wheelwright) is mishandled and far-fetched, meaning that it fails to have the desired impact. That scene also seems completely needless - in terms of the character's actions rather than the story - which could be intended to increase the tragedy, but just left me frustrated. However, the fact that the film so rarely strays into cliché is to be applauded, whilst the final shot is ingenious and immensely satisfying.
'Animal Kingdom' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is out in the UK now.