In preparation for an upcoming sermon I’m giving on Jacob wrestling with the angel, I’ve been re-reading some Old Testament commentary. In one source, the authors claim that a central theme of the Jewish creation narrative and God’s calling out of Israel to be God’s chosen people is one of order out of chaos. This ordered universe is held together, in part, by God’s command to mankind to be stewards of the earth and God’s covenant that he establishes with Israel. Of course, as we all well know, this order was never immune to the plague of chaotic forces. This theme of an ordered universe, recognition of place in it, threats to it and transgression/transcendence of it came to mind when watching Animal Kingdom, a fantastic, recent Australian crime drama.
Animal Kingdom tells the story of the Cody family, mother Janine (Jacki Weaver), her three sons, Andrew, a.k.a. Pope (Ben Mendelsohn), Barry, a.k.a. Baz (Joel Edgerton), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and Darren (Luke Ford), and grandson Joshua, a.k.a. J (James Frecheville). The four brothers work together as armed robbers, but have recently gone into hiding because the police have turned up the heat in their investigations of their crimes. J, formerly alienated from the wider family because his mother and grandmother got into a fight over the rules of a card game, is reunited with the latter when the former dies of a heroin overdose. As the police begin picking off his younger brothers, elder Pope seeks out revenge on the cops and draws J into his plans. J faces the decision of whether he will follow his family or search for a new “family,” particularly in the form of would-be-father-figure Sgt. Nathan Leckie, who sees the inevitably destructive outcome that awaits him.
The opening scene of Animal Kingdom is disturbing in its matter-of-factness. J sits on the couch watching an Australian version of Deal or No Deal next to a woman who appears to be asleep. Only when the paramedics knock on the door do we learn that she has OD’d. He calls his grandmother to come and get him, and when she does, the scene fades into images of a cheap brass relief of a pride of lions, one atop a sun-drenched rocky outcrop (think The Lion King), over which the film’s title appears. As the opening credits continue to roll, we see haunting security camera images of the brothers robbing banks (video below). J serves as the occasional narrator throughout the film, and here he tells the audience that this is just the world into which he has been thrown. He made no conscious choice to be a part of it nor directly influenced the world to turn as it has/does for him. As we see throughout the film, the world in which J moves is very much like the one depicted in the kitschy work of art mentioned above. It’s a lion-eat-lion, survival-of-the-fittest world, and his three uncles, to varying degrees, are as vicious as they come. Of course, they’ve got nothing on his grandmother.
In keeping with the theme of an ordered universe, recognizing our place in it, and our ability to transcend said place, in the last third of the film, Sgt. Leckie confronts J and offers him some advice on how the world works. Reflecting on the bush that surrounds them, he tells J that it is made up of big trees and bushes that have been there for thousands of years and pissy little bugs that will die before the minute’s up. He then asks J to if he knows where he fits in this world…his family’s of course. Sgt. Leckie seems to know what J has yet to learn, specifically that his family will turn on him just as quickly as they would the police. At the same time, however, his advice to J also carries with it the implication that J can not only recognize his place in their world, but transcend it as well. He is offering him an out.
The theme of order can be seen not only in the Cody family, but also between the Cody family and the authorities. The film provides glimpses of a breakdown of this order in both. In the process, it reveals the ways in which these ideas have been used to oppress and suppress individuals and groups throughout history. As the film progresses, J becomes both victim and violator. Sgt. Leckie might provide a means of escape for J, but the system of which he is a part frequently abuses its power (actions that stoke Pope’s anger). At the same time, the good Sgt. doesn’t seem to fully grasp the effect that chaos, or the unexpected, ambiguous experiences of life, has on an individual like J. Inexplicable events take place against which many individuals have no adequate defense. Sometimes, as in Pope’s case, they create a desire for revenge…a need to devour one’s neighbor. Sgt. Leckie fails to realize that just because someone might be able to “take the out,” doesn’t mean they always will. Furthermore, if someone does transcend an oppressive situation, it doesn’t mean that it’s easy…or safe.
Animal Kingdom is a fantastic film that represents the best of the crime genre, and while viewers might recognize similarities between the characters and others in previous crime films, Janine, Pope, and J do bring something fresh to the table. While all the actors excel in their roles, Weaver and Mendelsohn shine the brightest (or darkest). Weaver got most of the awards buzz, but Mendelsohn was equally deserving and unfortunately overlooked. That this is writer/director David Michod‘s first feature-length film is noteworthy indeed. He manages to make a brooding film devoid of any over-the-top action move rather quickly. He fills his film with scenes that ratchet up the tension and only occasionally releases it. Michod also knows how to write one helluva ending.
Animal Kingdom (118 mins.) is rated R for violence and language and is available on DVD.
Here are a couple of clips from the film. The first is of the opening credits, and the second features Janine (Jacki Weaver) in one of the film’s best scenes.