As played by Jacki Weaver, she is the lioness who rules “Animal Kingdom,” a Darwinian experiment playing out in an Australian family where violence is a norm.
Not that she’s obvious about it. She doesn’t call the shots. Janine simply exerts a creepy psycho-sexual hold over her lads in this Australian thriller, a hold that makes us fear for the grandson (James Frecheville) forced to live under her roof.
A chilling coming-0f-age story with a backdrop of horrific violence, nightmarish choices in the present and the prospect of a bleak future, “Animal Kingdom” is a genre picture designed to get under your skin and in your head, a thriller that repulses even as it draws you in.
Joshua Cody (Frecheville) narrates this Melbourne tale, introducing us to the uncles who have designs on initiating him into the family business. Not that all of them are sold on armed robbery as something with a future.
“Our game, it’s over mate.”
But when Uncle Pope (Ben Mendelsohn, fearsome) comes back home Janine starts to lean on them. Joshua and the others are in, whether they like it or not.
The armed robbery squad are onto the Codys, and their tactics are every bit as ruthless as the robbers. Blood has been shed and blood must be avenged. But one sympathetic cop (Guy Pearce) thinks that maybe the kid is reachable, savable. Maybe he can get him out and get him to turn on his family before it’s too late.
Writer-director David Michod has created a slow-building tale that combines heist picture ingredients with generic coming-of-age moments. Joshua, “Jay,” is a bit of a stoner and has his first real girlfriend, Nicky (Laura Wheelwright). The film forces us, like Jay, to worry over what his violent family will mean not just to him, but to the one person he’s let himself care about.
And at every turn, there’s Janine — testing, pressing, questioning the brains, the heart and the very manhood of her boys. Weaver’s justly-celebrated performance is a tour de force in evil mothering. As Michod’s ripped-from-the-headlines story unfolds, we may fear for Jay and Nicky, even root for them. But it’s rooting against grandma that drives this violent, hardhearted film, and waiting for the pride of lions she’s created to devour her that gives “Animal Kingdom” its animal energy.
See for Yourself
Cast: James Frecheville, Joel Edgerton, Jacki Weaver, Guy Pearce, Laura Wheelwright
Director: David Michod
Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes
Industry rating: R for violence, drug content and pervasive language.