In the pantheon of evil movie mothers, Janine Cody has no peer. Overseeing a criminal family of bank robbers and drug dealers, the diminutive, 60ish charmer is, as Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote, “a magnetic, seductive hybrid of Lady Macbeth and Ma Barker in the camouflage of a cheery suburban grandmother.”
Cody, played by veteran actress Jacki Weaver, is the matriarchal centerpiece in this Australian crime drama, and she’s the character you can’t take your eyes off. Nicknamed “Smurf” by her three gangster sons, she cheerfully dotes on her boys, pulls another casserole out of the oven and bats blue eyes at suspicious detectives.
Moments later, there she is, blackmailing cops and ordering a hit that’s as cold-blooded as Michael Corleone taking out his brother Fredo. “He’s got to go,” she says with an innocent smile and a shrug.
She’s the queen bee. The puppeteer. The five-foot-tall, bleach-blond monster. And this den mother is the most dangerous predator in the jungle that is Animal Kingdom.
The first full-length feature by writer-director David Michod, Animal Kingdom is based on the story of Kath Pettingill (a.k.a. “Granny Evil”) and her three sons—a criminal family that terrorized Melbourne in the 1980s. The Pettingills were involved in drug trafficking, arms dealing, prostitution and armed robbery. They were also tried but acquitted of the ambush murder of two policemen, a crime that is mimicked in the film.
Beyond that, we can’t tell you how faithful Animal Kingdom is to real life. But the Pettingills—here the Codys—are portrayed as one warped brood. There’s Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), a rodent-faced psychopath who’s alternately laconic and bullying. There’s Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), the tattooed, paranoid cokehead. And there’s Darren (Luke Ford), the youngest and dimmest of the crew, who spends most of the movie nervously chewing his fingers.
Into this pack of wolves stumbles poor 17-year-old Josh (James Frecheville), whose mother—the daughter/sister of these sociopaths—opens the film by OD’ing on the couch. Her death places him in the care, if that’s the word, of Grandma Smurf, whom he hasn’t seen in years. Turns out Josh’s mother, for all her problems, tried hard to keep him away from her side of the family.
Josh seems like a good-hearted, if sullen, teen. But what chance does he have in this lion’s den? On his first day, he’s goaded into aiming a loaded pistol at a mouthy motorist after a traffic dustup. Such is day-to-day life with the Codys.
Josh’s uncles are eager to teach him the ropes. And to this end, Animal Kingdom does a good job of showing how the young really cannot question their circumstances. In this suburban household, crime is the norm. Josh is in no position to change that.
Compounding his difficulties, the timing of his entrance into the family (or Family) could not have been worse. The Codys are at war with Melbourne’s out-of-control police armed robbery squad. Within days of Josh’s arrival, Baz Brown (Joel Edgerton)—the conscience of the gang, if there is one—is shot point-blank by the rogue cops as he sits in his car.
That episode shifts the movie into a story of tit-for-tat revenge. As the bodies fall, Josh tries to stay neutral, until one particular killing forces him to take a side.
The troubled teenager draws the attention of Detective Nathan Leckie (Guy Pearce), a rare decent cop who wants to save Josh while also using him to ensnare his criminal family. Leckie earns the movie its title by giving Josh an interview-room speech about the hunter and the prey, the weak and the strong, the jungle’s laws of survival. The cop starts to sound like Marlin Perkins after a while.
Animal Kingdom sets a languid pace and there are times in its 113 minutes when your interest may wane. It’s a slow boil, but some dishes simmer best over low heat. Things get increasingly charged, right up to the film’s tense and shocking ending.
HIT: We place Jacki Weaver, as Grandma Smurf, on the Mount Rushmore of female movie gangsters, along with Faye Dunaway (Bonnie and Clyde), Helen Mirren (The Long Good Friday) and Gena Rowlands (Gloria). Except that Weaver gets to occupy the highest point of the peak. Weaver spent most of her career doing television work in her native Australia. She received a 2011 Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her work in Animal Kingdom. Here’s hoping it makes her a late-arriving film star.
MISS: We understand that Josh’s character is written to be an affectless bystander to the horror going on around him. But too often Frecheville’s deadpan delivery and blank stare seem almost catatonic. We felt like snapping our fingers to see if the young man was awake.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “The strength of Animal Kingdom is its slow-building fatalism; the criminals’ luck runs out, but then finds depressing extension via an out-of-left-field collaborator. It’s a movie that has very little faith in authority, not even in Guy Pearce’s righteous detective. The only law here is Darwin’s.”—Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Any scene with the monster granny deserves another look. You can fast-forward through the rest.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The overly affectionate way that Grandma Smurf kisses her three sons. Downright creepy.
PIVOTAL SCENE: Midway through the film, Josh has already been questioned by the police. He is unsure where his loyalties lie, and his uncles grow increasingly suspicious of him.
Josh’s girlfriend, Nicky, goes to the Cody house one night looking for him. Josh isn’t there, but Darren and Pope ask her in. Pope invites her to shoot heroin with him, and the vulnerable girl doesn’t have the strength to say no.
Pope injects Nicky, who goes into a soporific daze. He begins to question her: Have you been talking to the cops? Has Josh? What have you told them?
Nicky issues weak denials, but is too drugged to respond to Pope’s satisfaction. Fearing any loose ends, Pope proceeds to smother the helpless girl to death. It’s the most gut-wrenching scene in the film.
The next day, police find Nicky in an alley. They take Josh to show him the body. If there was any doubt which way he would go, it is over now.
BEST LINE: Josh, looking at the events in hindsight: “My mother kept me away from her family because she was scared. I didn’t realize at the time that they were all scared, even if they just didn’t show it.”
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: Take away his bouffant of a haircut, and you may recognize the actor playing sleazy lawyer Ezra as Dan Wyllie, the guy who also played Cackles the skinhead in Russell Crowe’s 1992 thug drama Romper Stomper.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Michod and producer Liz Watts’ original script called for a younger, more innocent-looking actor for the part of Josh. When they chose Frecheville, who appears older and larger than his 17 years, they rewrote the role so that the character actually plays more of a part in his uncles’ crimes.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: There are no gun battles, car chases or beatdowns. Animal Kingdom’s violence comes in quick, unannounced flashes that do more to build a deepening sense of dread than glamorize the criminal life.
BODY COUNT: Six—three crooks, two cops, one innocent.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: The Boys, a 1998 Aussie drama about three criminal brothers facing impending doom as their plans go awry. Toni Collette plays the weak mother of the dysfunctional brood.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]