Saturday, January 18, 2020

Family and Crime Go Hand-in-Hand in Animal Kingdom

We all have family members who can be a touch overbearing. For Joshua Cody (James Frecheville), his particular brand of troublesome family members take the form of a gaggle of unpredictable criminals. Once his mother unexpectedly overdoses, Joshua is forced to live with these relatives that include Andrew "Pope" Cody (Ben Mendelsohn), grandmother Janine Cody (Jackie Weaver) and Barry Brown (Joel Edgerton). Once Joshua arrives, the family is already in the middle of a crisis as a rival gang is keeping a close eye on everybody in the Cody clan to figure out where exactly Pope has gone off to (he's hiding out in a hotel room somewhere at the start of the proceedings).

Their beef may be with Pope, but soon it engulfs Barry before also capturing the rest of the corrupt Cody family, including its newest reluctant recruit, Joshua. Such is the basic premise of American Animals, a crime drama that, for a portion of its runtime, just wasn't clicking with me. The movie transpiring on-screen wasn't bad but it also didn't seem to be all that distinctive in the field of crime movies. The Cody crime family is played by a troupe of talented actors but as written by the film's director David Michod, they at first seem like just your average cinematic crime family. Specifically, they're capable of being humans around each other but the ease in which they slip into criminal activity makes it clear they're lacking some critical humanity.

However, midway through the project, Joshua begins getting repeatedly questioned by police officer Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce) and suddenly, like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, Animal Kingdom metamorphizes into its own crime movie. It manages to accomplish this by relying on its own distinct character elements, specifically with how everybody in the Cody family is scheming behind Joshua's back to figure out a way to get this loose thread taken care of. Joshua is trying his best to be a loyal tight-lipped soldier around the authorities. Meanwhile, the people he's putting himself on the line for are doing their best to get rid of Joshua by any means possible.

Such complex familial betrayal is the kind of material David Michod really excels at writing, it's thrilling how Michod keeps you guessing as to where everybody's loyalties lie. I especially love how his script gradually reveals that Janine is the true evil genius behind this whole operation. For much of Animal Kingdom, Janine is a passive background figure but the way in which she's shown to be such a skilled manipulator in the third act makes one want to immediately revisit Animal Kingdom and see if you can spot how Janine has been exerting control throughout the whole story. She's a dastardly figure and the kind of one-of-a-kind figure that epitomizes how Animal Kingdom works best when engaging in its most unique material.

Such material tends to work best not just because of its inherent originality but also because its when the actors most come alive. Of course, many of these performers are delivering standout work even in the most derivative moments of Animal Kingdom. Chief among those performers is Ben Mendelsohn, delivering proof of his immense chops as an actor five years before his breakout work in Bloodline. It's impressive how Mendelsohn has played so many morally corrupt characters in his career yet he constantly manages to make sure they're more than just carbon copies of one another. In the case of his part in Animal Kingdom, his standout distinguishing trait is a sense of casualness. This makes scenes with Pope where he's just being a dude chilling on the couch disarming but when he's committing vicious criminal acts without blinking, there's something so immensely unnerving in Mendelsohn's on-screen work.

Jackie Weaver is similarly able to succeed in a multi-layered performance. She lends equal levels of authenticity to her portrayals of Janine as a kindhearted relative and as a cutthroat criminal figure. In the lead role, James Frecheville is constrained by Michod's script that keeps Joshua primarily as a character reacting to his more outsized relatives (admittedly, such a move does make the final scene with a more active Joshua impressively harrowing), but Frecheville still delivers solid work in the part. Meanwhile, David Michod's direction is less noteworthy than the majority of the on-screen performances, he just doesn't lend a tremendously distinct visual approach to the crime thriller. Still, his most inspired pieces of direction prove to be critical in making Animal Kingdom a noteworthy, though occasionally imitative, entry into the crime movie pantheon.

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