Animal Kingdom wrongly assumes certain characters deserve empathy simply because they’re protagonists. A Melbourne crime film cast in a familiar mold and awash in unwarranted pretentiousness, David Michôd’s debut concerns the illicit odyssey thrust upon J (James Frencheville), a 17-year-old who, after his mother’s OD death, goes to live with his grandmother and uncles—all stick-up artists—he’d previously been kept away from. As envisioned by Michôd and embodied by Frencheville, J is a complete and utter nothing, a cipher whose expressionless mug doesn’t mask deep, conflicted emotions, but instead reflects total blankness. As the audience proxy who provides entrance into this clan’s nefarious business, J makes so little impact that engagement is immediately stymied, though Michôd’s penchant for torpid clichés and grand aesthetic embellishment is also significantly to blame. J’s uncles are a predictably varied lot: Barry (Joel Edgerton) is understanding and fatherly (even though we’re told he’s a badass), Darren (Luke Ford) is wimpy yet kind, Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) is coked-out and volatile, and Pope (Ben Mendelsohn) is the scary, untrustworthy one prone to rape and murder. Toss in grandma Smurf (Jacki Weaver) and a bunch of anonymous wives, and you’ve got yourself a badly behaved family straight out of Screenwriting 101.
Animal Kingdom‘s conventionality extends to Michôd’s sub-Goodfellas desire to suggest profundity by drenching every other scene in laughably operatic slow-mo and portentous orchestral music. Despite what its style implies, the narrative is an empty shell that pretends to be a coming-of-age drama while celebrating and sympathizing with characters who warrant little more than contempt. J falls in line with his relatives, beginning by threatening a motorist with a handgun and ending with a stolen car and a murder, simply because “this is where I was, and this is what I was doing,” a bit of self-justification imbued with amoral passivity. A dullard who does what he does simply because, you know, that’s what everyone else was doing, J is an alienating central figure, and given that his elders are uniformly repugnant and—just as problematic—lifeless from a base personality standpoint, Michôd’s film never establishes cause for connecting with their war against the cops. Guy Pearce’s detective Leckie is a stock type, a noble force amid crooked ranks, and the fact that he proves the story’s rooting-interest moral center further reduces the enterprise’s effectiveness, considering that Michôd is so determined to have us side with J and, if nothing else, at least enjoy the naughty, dangerous company of Pope.
Simply because J and his kin are on screen doesn’t mean one has to give a hoot about their plight, and Michôd’s mistake throughout is that he takes for granted the audience’s interest, thus failing to imbue any of his tale’s players with nuanced, captivating personality traits or ethical/emotional/psychological motivations. Aside from one unexpected early-act death of a seemingly main character, Animal Kingdom—its survival-of-the-fittest title as groan-worthy as the rest of its underworld treatise—offers no surprises. And while Pearce delivers a nicely controlled performance, refusing to tip over into sanctimoniousness even when the script seems on the verge of doing just that, the rest of the cast is eminently forgettable, from Mendelsohn’s blandly pervy Pope to Weaver’s cheerfully malevolent granny. That J’s saga is ultimately one of cruel familial abuse should be front-and-center, but since Michôd favors look-at-me cinematography and music over a lucid conception of his teenage protagonist’s path, the proceedings wind up being defined by derivative posturing. “It’s a crazy fucking world,” Pope muses at the end, a closing line refuted by the routine preceding material, which posits a paint-by-numbers reality made up of only stolid gangster-cinema tropes.