Characters Sans Character

'Animal Kingdom' presents gangsters in a whole new light: as extremely boring

I generally don't like gangster movies as much as I'm supposed to. I thought City of God was reasonably entertaining, but didn't rise above being a genre film. Scarface strikes me as more of a broad, slapstick comedy than a morality tale, and Toy Story 4: Broken Legos, while moving in its depiction of Barbie's descent into drugs and prostitution, never explored the deeper motivation behind the dismemberment of Mr. Potato Head.

So Animal Kingdom, a film about a family of Australian gangsters, was not my favorite film of the last 15 years. But if you can get past a slow first hour, and the fact that the protagonist is almost completely characterless, you might, as I did, enjoy the twisted second half—in which we learn that even vicious criminals can be bad people.

Before slowing down, the film starts with a bang: 17-year-old Josh (James Frecheville) is sitting on the couch and watching a game show next to his mother—only Mom's not looking so good. She'd probably be fine if she were breathing and her heart were beating, but as the paramedics arrive, and Josh continues to stare fixedly at the TV, desperate to see who'll be the next contestant on The Price Is Right, it becomes obvious that not only is Mom not inhaling; she has no plans to inhale ever again.

Thus Josh must move in with his grandmother (Jacki Weaver), who seems like a nice enough old woman, except that her sons, Darren (Luke Ford), Andrew (Ben Mendelsohn) and Craig (Sullivan Stapleton), the Cody brothers, like to murder for fun. Well, more for profit than for fun, as they're professional bank robbers.

Andrew is known as "Pope," and not because he wears a funny hat and runs a child-molestation ring. Rather, he's the leader of the Cody gang. While all of the brothers have a fairly lackadaisical attitude toward lawfulness, Pope is remarkable in his utter inability to make moral judgments. Thus, he thinks of murder in the way most of us think of cleaning the bathroom: It's just what you do after making a mess.

What all the brothers have in common, besides a loose interpretation of the social contract, is that they're really boring. They have nothing interesting to talk about; they mostly sit around watching TV or playing video games; and they don't even seem to get excited about crime.

Young Josh fits right in with this crowd, as he is the most boring person on the face of the Earth. And this is the central problem with the film's first half: Josh, who's the focal character, is so blank that it's nearly impossible to care what happens to him.

I think filmmaker David Michôd wanted to make a gangster movie that in no way glamorized the gangster lifestyle. That's a nearly impossible task, because even if the gangsters are morally repugnant, in most gangster films, they do exciting things and have some sort of bravado or cunning that makes them somehow enviable. In Animal Kingdom, though, the gangsters are tremendously stupid and boring. I can't imagine anyone would walk away from this film wanting to be one of these people, and so, unlike Scarface, there's no chance that Animal Kingdom will act as a recruitment seminar for criminals.

But it's also not very interesting to watch people who are watching television. So, as the first half of the film establishes the character, or lack thereof, of the Cody brothers and their drippy nephew Josh, it never finds a hook for audience interest.

However, as the film progresses, the stupidity and evil of the brothers—especially Pope—escalates, and when they begin to turn on each other, some unexpected twists bring grandma Janine into the forefront. Up to this point, she's been the only vaguely interesting character, because she at least seems to care about something, even if the something she cares about is her worthless collection of children.

She also has an air of kindness that makes her sympathetic. But when her brood is threatened, somehow, without losing her grandmotherly manner, she reveals a darkness that would make Karl Rove shudder. Jacki Weaver is excellent in this role, and her performance in the latter half makes the first half of the film far more meaningful.

Also good are Guy Pearce as a police officer who may or may not be a good guy. He works in a department that is partly run by the mob, and partly run by people who treat suspected criminals the same way young boys treat flies: They kill them for sport.

All of the acting has a blunt naturalism to it, so I can't blame the cast for the film's problems, as they appear to be doing exactly as directed. The difficulty is in telling a story about boring people. While Michôd puts forth some very strong sequences, and he wraps his film up neatly, he spends a little too much time establishing character where character is nowhere to be found.


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